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The Uncivil Servant: For Bernie

Mitchell Abidor
July 31, 2015

by Mitchell Abidor

BernieIT IS ONLY NOW, when I’m old enough to receive a pension and Social Security, that I will be actively supporting a Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders. I must have supported Eugene McCarthy for ten minutes in 1968, because among my political memorabilia from the Sixties, in a box with my countless Black Panther buttons (“Free the Panther 21,” “Free Huey,” “The Spirit of Fred [Hampton] Lives: I am a Revolutionary”) is a McCarthy pin. I was quickly cured of any of my illusions about bourgeois politicians by the events of the spring of 1968, both the occupation of Columbia University and, to a far greater extent, by the events in Paris in May. Farewell McCarthy pin, hello badge with a hammer and sickle and the words “Jeunesse Communiste Revolutionnaire,” the Trotskyist group led by Alain Krivine that played so important a role in the failed revolution.

The degree of my political activity has wavered and diminished over the years, and as I told a friend a short while ago, my role now is that of a “militant translator,” someone who has dedicated himself to translating texts that inspire those still willing to knock on doors and stand on streetcorners.

What has also occurred over the decades since the 60’s has been my ever-growing disdain for the left, a disdain, and at times hatred, exceeded only by my disdain and hatred of the right. The persistence of a Leninist line of thinking that has nothing to do with American reality and never did; the use of a political language and concepts that no American outside leftist coteries understands; the sectarianism and personal attacks that are so much a part of any leftwing assembly; the victory of identity politics; the foolish triumphalism that sees in every demonstration anywhere in the world the first signs of imminent socialist revolution — all of this has led me to shun political activism and activists as much as possible.

Until Bernie.

HARDCORE LEFTIES snipe at him and claim that he is nothing but a stalking horse for Clinton; that he will divert the working class from its true needs and struggle. All of this misses the fact that in this wretched moral cesspit of a country, someone whose program includes free college tuition and health care for all and taxing the wealthy is, within the American context, Lenin. But a Lenin with a huge difference: Because he is running as a Democrat, no one can fairly condemn him for not acting in keeping with Lenin’s April Theses. As a Democrat, he’s free of the need to do so and is thus exempt from any criticism along those lines. And as a Democrat, he will also be liberated from the aching forms of correctness that made a party like the Greens so unbearable. At the beginning of Nader’s campaign on 2000 there was a meeting of supporters in my backward part of Brooklyn. The first twenty minutes of the meeting were eaten up with a discussion of the need for all leaflets to bear union bugs. I don’t know how long the rest of the meeting lasted, because I left in the middle of the dispute.

On the evening of July 29th, the kickoff of the Sanders organizing campaign took place, a live stream sent to 3,500 locations with 100,000 attendees. I attended with hope and trepidation. I chose to attend the event closest to my home, which was also the one closest to where Sanders grew up, in fact 2.7 miles from his home on Kings Highway, which is just four blocks from my house in Brooklyn.

The attendees, fifteen of them, the apartment’s capacity, were predominately young hipsters, with one person older than me and the next oldest person twenty years younger than me. A sign of the one weak point in Bernie’s campaign is that there was only one black attendee.

From the first minutes the gathering’s difference from any officially leftwing event was made clear: The hostess asked us to all introduce ourselves and explain why we supported Bernie, and not a single one of the fifteen spoke for longer than a minute! No posturing, no vaporing on endlessly. “I want to be part of a campaign funded by the people and not billionaires.” “He might not be the best ever, but he’s what we need.” “It’s been wonderful seeing Bernie shake things up.” “I’m tired of centrist politicians posing as left.” “I’m tired of holding my nose when I vote.” Delightful.

The Sanders speech that was streamed for us was a perfect distillation of the Sanders style and message. Not for Bernie crowds of people waving posters and signs and applauding on command. He stood at a podium in what looked like someone’s rec room and read off sheets of yellow legal-sized paper what he stands for, saying “enough is enough” of all the things he attacked: the rich getting richer and the rest of us poorer; the forty-year decline in real income; the institutional racism; and “maybe, just maybe,” for what he hopes to see: education instead of incarceration, paid maternity leave, free tuition at public colleges and universities. All the while, he hammered home that we are the only major country without most of what he advocates, despite our much vaunted wealth.

It was a perfect slice of his campaign: simple, direct, unpretentious.

There is almost nothing that causes me to have any hope for this country. Yet, as Sanders said, his campaign has received contributions from 325,000 individual donors. He is drawing huge crowds everywhere, even in benighted places like Texas. His honesty is not the meanness of a Trump: nothing he says is focus-group tested, and his unabashed Brooklyn-ness (he spoke of people “all ovah the country” rallying to him), his rumpled appearance, are all part of his charm.

Perhaps this is the time to invoke the motto of the great Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci: We should have pessimism of the mind, but optimism of the will. For anyone on the left to stand outside his campaign, the campaign of a man who proclaims himself a socialist, would be criminally foolish.

A SIDE NOTE: Until Norm Coleman was voted out of office by Al Franken — one Jew replacing another — 3 percent of the U.S. Senate attended James Madison High School in Brooklyn: Sanders, Chuck Schumer, and Norm Coleman. Now it’s only 2 percent. Add to this the 11 percent of the Supreme Court, the best 11 percent — Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who also attended that high school. Madison is not an elite school: You attend it, at least in the era of Sanders, Schumer, Coleman, Ginsburg (and me), because you lived in its zone. It didn’t select for the gifted. Famous actors, athletes, and four Nobel Prize winners are also Madison alumni, as did another leftwing candidate for president, Barry Commoner. What a tribute this is to post-World War II, middle-class, Jewish Brooklyn, in particular to this bland, distant, ignored part of the borough. And what a criticism of the mania for sending kids to “the best schools.” Few of the best have a record to equal James Madison’s.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His recent books include an anthology of Victor Serge’s writings, Anarchists Never Surrender, and a translation of A Socialist History of the French Revolution, by Jean Jaurès.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.