Some thoughts from my morning walk:
A Trans-Siberian railway of column inches has already been laid concerning the US Presidential Election of 2016, which makes dubious and vain the proposition of adding another sleeper narrative to the track. And yet, thoughts press. What occurs to me, in the fog of melancholy and angst that still hangs over the bruised factions of the Left, is that if we want to understand what happened—now the title of Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir—we could have looked for analogy and allegory at events and reportage from eighty years before, specifically the party-political situation described in fifth chapter of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938), concerning the resistance of various leftist forces, military and paramilitary, to the fascism of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. With only the minimum of ironic adjustments, we need not shoehorn the analogy.
The Left, the anti-Fascist forces, were divided between the Communists who believed that winning the war against Fascism was the most important outcome, and the Anarchists who believed that winning the war and revolution were inseparable. The Communists—better armed, and backed by counterrevolutionary Soviets—held the position that if revolution was to be the consequence of the victory against Franco, then significant numbers of the Left would become anxious, spooked out of the fight, and find themselves reluctant to speak out or take arms against the Fascists. Revolution was not required to preserve Democracy, argued the Communists. Revolution was a precondition, argued the Anarchists.
And so, first as tragedy, then as farce, we saw this acted out in the divisions of the Clinton and Sanders factions during the campaign, and in isolated antagonisms that persist to this moment. The problem with the Anarchists, Orwell thought, was that their propaganda risked the vapidity of excessive idealism, where slogans and sincerity part ways in the absence of a ‘real’ program. The problem with the Communists was that they represented bourgeois liberal capitalism, for better or worse synonymous with Democracy, and who, even if they sympathized with trade unions and the working class, were resistant to the collectivization of business and property. Orwell thought that the Anarchists were the better, if not the best, proposition, and would regret not formally joining them as a party, even if he had been in the trenches with them.
If you have read this far, and if you regard the Kremlin of the present day—as I do—as intervening in our case, as it were, on the side of Fascism in supporting Trump, you doubtless sense a flaw in the analogy. As I mentioned earlier, and as in all study of history, we must concede to irony. In the Putin-Trump case, the Kremlin was once again acting with counterrevolutionary aims because both Democratic candidates represented a revolutionary mode: Sanders’ more overt socialism and the feminist social implications of Clinton’s candidacy. This is a Kremlin that would have been pro-Franco, now that the Soviet revolutions of a century ago have degenerated into sinister plutocracy ruled by a pseudo-regent. In our case, the analogous Anarchists and Communists of 1936 and 2016 both represented challenges to the Kremlin. Sanders’ case is the most ironic because Putin may have found that a nascent or resurgent sense of Democratic Socialism in the United States, of all places, would have emphasized his autocracy, about which he is sensitive when accused.
However, the United States is, in practice if not theory, profoundly conservative; and if Putin is a competent strategist then he must have also known that there was no harm in agitating on Sanders’ or even Stein’s behalf because Sanders, arguably, stood less chance than Clinton against the plutocratic fascist pseudo-regent Trump, when the curtains on the ballot boxes were drawn. Another more recent analogy for what happened with Clinton-Trump is found in Britain in the final campaign of Neil Kinnock and the Labor Party whose shock loss to John Major and the Conservative Party in 1992 demonstrated again the difference between revolutionary theory and practice when the curtains are drawn. It must have been obvious to Putin, as it was to the Communists of the 1930s, that, in 2016, to insist that revolution was inseparable from winning the war was a losing proposition and would split the difference of the Left. Perhaps more on the Left believed this also. The war must be won first. The historical precedent that complicates that idea is that in 1936, the Communists were not really postponing the revolution until the war could be won; they had no intention initiating it. Fighting for Liberal Democracy became synonymous with fighting for the status quo, and divided the Left.
In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell suggests that in making the case that the war against Fascism was a war to defend Democracy, neither the Anarchists nor the Communists could count on sufficient support—and this very case, that defeating Trump was about preserving Liberal Democracy against charismatic Fascism, was pressed vigorously in the contest between Clinton and Trump. Orwell laments that fighting for Democracy proved an insufficient motivation. Even if the Anarchists were right, he observed that their revolutionary rhetoric was also insufficient to inspire an international and united proletariat; one that could have defeated Franco with ease. If Clinton’s candidacy had a feminist appeal, and it is undeniable that it did—for women and men—then this was also, paradoxically, an insufficient revolutionary goal, at least for the electoral college where the 77,000 votes she lost by weighed heavier than nearly 3,000,000 by which she won the popular vote. And it is bitter that Trump’s nationalist and fascist utterances were frequently referred to as ‘populist’. None of this is written in the soreness of loss. It is written to suggest that there are precedents for the Trump presidency that range from pathetic losses (Kinnock-Major) to the tragic loss witnessed in Spain. It may be, we may hope, that the Trump presidency will finally rest in the pathetic column, based on his lack of competence and the distinct possibility that he will be removed from office before 2018 is out. For as much as we are ‘shocked’ by the electoral victory of such an ignorant psychopath as Donald Trump, we have—if we look—seen it before.