Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

Pakistan is reverberating with the call of jihad. Taliban-style militias are spreading rapidly out f

"You must understand," says Maulana Sami ul-Haq, "that Pakistan and Islam are synonymous." The principal of Darul Uloom Haqqania, a seminary in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), is a tall and jovial man. He grabs my hand as he takes me round the seminary. Maulana ul-Haq laughs when I ask his views on jihad. "It is the duty of all Muslims to support those groups fighting against oppression," he says.

The Haqqania is one of the largest madrasas in Pakistan. It produces about 3,000 graduates, most from exceptionally poor backgrounds, every year. The walls of the student dormitory are decorated with tanks and Kalashnikovs. A group of students, all with black beards, white turbans and grey dresses, surrounds me. They are curious and extremely polite. We chat under the watchful eye of two officers from Pakistan's intelligence services. What would they do after they graduate, I ask. "Serve Islam," they reply in unison. "We will dedicate our lives to jihad."

Pakistan is reverberating with the call of jihad. For more than two months, the capital, Islamabad, has been held hostage by a group of burqa-clad women, armed with sticks and shouting: "Al-jihad, al-jihad." These female students belong to two madrasas attached to the Lal Masjid, a large mosque near one of the city's main supermarkets. I found the atmosphere around the masjid tense, with heavily armed police surrounding the building. Though the students were allowed to go in and out freely, no one else could enter the mosque. The women are demanding the imposition of sharia law and the instant abolition of all "dens of vice". Away from the masjid, Islamabad looked like a city under siege.

A new generation of militants is emerging in Pakistan. Although they are generally referred to as "Taliban", they are a recent phenomenon. The original Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan briefly during the 1990s, were Afghan fighters, a product of the Soviet invasion of their country. They were created and moulded by the Pakistani army, with the active support of the United States and Saudi money, and the deliberate use of madrasas to prop up religious leaders. Many Taliban leaders were educated at Haqqania by Maulana Sami ul-Haq. The new generation of militants are all Pakistani; they emerged after the US invasion of Afghanistan and represent a revolt against the government's support for the US. Mostly unemployed, not all of them are madrasa-educated. They are led by young mullahs who, unlike the original Taliban, are technology- and media-savvy, and are also influenced by various indigenous tribal nationalisms, honouring the tribal codes that govern social life in Pakistan's rural areas. "They are Taliban in the sense that they share the same ideology as the Taliban in Afghanistan," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, Peshawar-based columnist on the News. "But they are totally Pakistani, with a better understanding of how the world works." Their jihad is aimed not just at "infidels occupying Afghanistan", but also the "infidels" who are ruling and running Pakistan and maintaining the secular values of Pakistani society. "They aim at nothing less than to cleanse Pakistan and turn it into a pure Islamic state," says Rashed Rahman, executive editor of the Lahore-based Post newspaper.

The Pakistani Taliban now dominate the northern province of Waziristan, adjacent to Afghan istan. "They are de facto rulers of the province," says Yusufzai. Waziristan is a tribal area that has historically been ruled by the tribes themselves. Pakistan has followed the policy of British Raj in the region. The British allowed tribal leaders, known as maliks, semi-autonomous powers in exchange for loyalty to the crown. Pakistan gives them the same power but demands loyalty to the federal government. They have been sidelined by the Taliban, however. Pro-government maliks who resisted the onslaught of the Taliban have been brutally killed and had their bodies hung from poles as a lesson to others. The Taliban have declared Waziristan an "Islamic emirate" and are trying to establish a parallel administration, complete with sharia courts and tax system.

Taliban-type militias have also taken control of parts of the adjacent NWFP. In Peshawar, one of the most open and accessible areas of the province, one can feel the tension on the streets. There are hardly any women out in public. The city, which has suffered numerous suicide attacks, is crowded with intelligence officers. Within an hour of my arrival in Peshawar, I was approached by a secret service official who warned that I was being watched. It is practically impossible for outsiders to enter other NWFP towns such as Tank, Darra Adam Khel and Dera Ismail Khan. In Dera Ismail Khan, outsiders - that is, Pakistanis from other parts of the country - need police escorts to travel around. You are allowed in only if you can prove you have business or relatives there. Girls' schools have been closed, video and music shops bombed, and barbers forbidden from shaving beards. The religious parties have passed a public morality law that gives them powers to prosecute anyone who does not follow their strict moral code. Legislation to ban dance and music is being planned. Even administration of polio vaccination campaigns has been halted amid claims that it is a US plot to sterilise future generations.

Why is the ostensibly secular government of President Pervez Musharraf not taking any action against the Taliban militants and the parties that support them? Part of the answer lies in the militants and religious parties having served the military regime well. After coming to power in 1999, Musharraf used them to neutralise the mainstream political parties - Benazir Bhutto's People's Party and the Muslim League, led by Nawaz Sharif. "The military and mullahs have been traditional allies," says the Islamabad-based security analyst Dr Ayesha Siddiqa. "The alliance of religious parties that rules NWFP came into power through his support." Musharraf also used the religious militants to destabilise Indian-held Kashmir by proxy. He encouraged extremists preaching jihad to infiltrate India for acts of sabotage.

The same is true of the Taliban. The Afghan Taliban have been a useful ally against unfriendly governments in Kabul. Even though Musharraf has been forced to go against them under pressure from the Americans, his strategy has been to try to contain them, rather than defeat them. He tried to regulate the madrasas in NWFP and elsewhere in Pakistan that provide recruits for the Taliban, seized their funds and banned them from admitting foreign students. But that's about as far as he wanted to go. Constant US pressure has forced him to send in the army, with grave consequences. Every time the Pakistani army enters Waziristan, it takes heavy casualties. Since 2003, when Pakistani troops first entered the tribal regions, more than 700 soldiers have been killed. Not surprisingly, Musharraf signed a hasty peace agreement on 5 September 2006 allowing the Afghan Taliban to get on with their business. "The military regards the Taliban as an asset," says Siddiqa. "So why destroy an asset? Particularly when the asset could be useful in the future."

That future may not be too far off. Pakistan's foreign policy towards Afghanistan is based on the assumption that the Nato forces there will withdraw sooner rather than later, leaving Hamid Karzai's regime to fend for itself. The Karzai government is strongly anti-Pakistani. But the Pakistani army needs friendly rulers in Kabul who would be willing to run the oil and gas pipelines that will serve the newly established port at Gwadar through Afghanistan's provinces (see page 32). So Pakistan needs the Afghan Taliban to exist as a force strong enough to establish the next government in Afghanistan.

Moreover, a pro-Islamabad Taliban-type government in Afghanistan would help establish peace in the northern tribal regions of Pakistan. Although Karzai himself is a Pashtun, most of the people in power in Kabul are Tajiks, a minority tribe. A sizeable majority of Afghans belong to the Pashtun ethnic group, which ruled Afghanistan for centuries. The position of Pakistan's military is that this imbalance "against the political history and tribal culture of Afghan istan", as one army officer told me, is not going to last. Most of the Pakistani Taliban - that is, the vast majority of people in Waziristan - are also Pashtun. And they will not rest until their brothers across the border hold the reins of power. As such, peace in this part of Pakistan depends on who rules Afghanistan.

Musharraf's strategy is to contain the Taliban of Afghan and Pakistani varieties alike, while weeding out al-Qaeda jihadis, or "foreign elements", as they are known in Pakistani military circles. The foreigners are a legacy of the Soviet-Afghan war. When the war ended, many of the central Asians who came to fight the Soviets were not welcomed back in their countries. For want of an alternative, they settled in Pakistan. Most of these foreign jihadis are Uzbek. Musharraf has simply bribed the local tribes to attack and eradicate the Uzbek jihadis. The battle between Pashtun tribesmen and al-Qaeda in Wana, southern Waziristan, in which more than 200 al-Qaeda fighters and some 50 tribal fighters were killed a fortnight ago was a product of this policy.

Musharraf's problem is that the Taliban cannot be contained. The Pakistani Taliban have now acquired enough confidence to break out of Wazi ristan and NWFP into other parts of the country. "What's happening at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad is a trial run for the rest of the country," says Rahman. "If the Taliban succeed in Islamabad, they will turn Pakistan into Talibistan."

Lawyers in uproar

While Musharraf continues to placate the Taliban, the rest of Pakistan is standing up against Talibanisation. Huge demonstrations have been held in Lahore, Karachi and other cities throughout Pakistan. To begin with, the protests were held to support Chief Justice Iftikhar Moham med Chaudhry, who was sacked by Musharraf in March. Chaudhry, who has become a national hero, tried to prevent the army from selling the national steel mill for a song. The affair was the latest in a long list of scandals involving the military. The openly unconstitutional act caused uproar, leading to countrywide protests by lawyers. But the lawyers have now acquired a broader agenda. They have become a national resistance movement, supported by all sections of society, against military rule and the Taliban.

Musharraf's response to the demonstrations and the Taliban challenge is to try to entrench himself even more deeply. While the country buckles under the pressure of suicide bombings, kidnappings and acts of sabotage, his main concern is his own survival. Constitutionally, he must hold elections some time this year - something he has promised to do, but the whole exercise will be designed to ensure that he continues as president for another five years.

His plan to get "re-elected" has two strands. The simple option is to get the current hand-picked parliament to endorse him for a second term and try to manipulate this vote, which the present sham constitution dictates, to ensure a healthy two-thirds majority. The heads of intelligence, the security services and the police have already been primed to ensure "positive results".

Bhutto to the rescue?

The other option is a bit messy. It involves making a deal with the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, head of the Pakistan People's Party. Bhutto, who has been ousted from power by the military twice, is desperate to get back into power. She has a great deal in common with the general. She runs the People's Party as her personal property, and her social and economic policies - rooted as they are in feudalism and opportunism - are not far removed from those of the army. Her foreign policy would be the same as that of Musharraf; indeed, she is even more pro-American than the general.

So Bhutto and Musharraf, who have been negotiating with each other for almost three years, are an ideal couple. "The problem," says Rahman, "is that Musharraf does not want to give up his military uniform. It is the source of his strength. And the idea of Musharraf remaining military chief is anathema to Bhutto."

But the state of the nation, on the verge of political and religious collapse, may force Musharraf's hand. A deal between the general and the self-proclaimed "Daughter of the East" in which Musharraf retains most of his power as civilian president and Bhutto serves as prime minister may be acceptable to both. Rumours abound in Islamabad that a deal is imminent.

Bhutto's return from the cold would do little to stop Pakistan's slide into anarchy, however. The Taliban sense victory and will not be easily satisfied with anything less than a Pakistan under sharia law, or wide-ranging bloodshed. As Asma Jahangir, chairwoman of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission, makes clear, the country cannot survive its "deep-seated rot" unless the "unrepresentative organs of the state - the military, the mullahs and the all-consuming intelligence agencies - are brought under control". It is hard to disagree with her assessment. But it is even harder to see how these "unrepresen tative organs" can be stopped from dragging Pakistan further towards the abyss - with dire consequences for the rest of the world.

Pakistan: a short history

1947 Muslim state of Pakistan created by partition of India at the end of British rule

1948 First war with India over disputed territory of Kashmir

1965 Second war with India over Kashmir

1971 East Pakistan attempts to secede, triggering civil war. Third war between Pakistan and India. East Pakistan breaks away to become Bangladesh

1980 US pledges military assistance following Soviet intervention in Afghanistan

1988 Benazir Bhutto elected prime minister

1996 Bhutto dismissed, for the second time, on charges of corruption

1998 Country conducts nuclear tests

1999 General Pervez Musharraf seizes power in military coup

2001 Musharraf backs US in war on terror and supports invasion of Afghanistan

2002 Musharraf given another five years in office in criticised referendum

2003 Pakistan declares latest Kashmir ceasefire. India does likewise

2004 Musharraf stays head of army, having promised in 2003 to relinquish role

2005 Earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir kills tens of thousands of people

2007 Musharraf suspends Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, triggering nationwide protests

Read more from our Pakistan special issue here

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror