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Becoming a pariah state

Even if none of the Mumbai attackers turns out to be British, radicalised young men from over here c

Intelligence officers around the world must have winced as the camera-phone images from Mumbai showed the only terrorist left alive being beaten by a vengeful crowd. Not, of course, through any sympathy for this AK-47-wielding murderer, but through professional concern that the only live source of information about the planning and execution of these audacious attacks was about to die. Police officers intervened and the injured attacker survived to face the trials of the interrogation room.

The detainee, 21-year-old Azam Amir Qasab, is reported to have told his captors that he comes from the small village of Faridkot, in Pakistan's Punjab Province. He has admitted, it is said, to being a member of the Pakistani militant Islamist group Lashkar-e-Toiba - "the Army of the Pure" - which has been blamed for similar well-planned guerrilla attacks carried out by heavily armed men. It was Lashkar-e-Toiba fighters who tried to storm the parliament building in New Delhi in December 2001, spraying automatic gunfire and killing nine guards and parliament stewards. According to the terrorism analyst Sajjan Gohel, this kind of assault by fedayeen fighters is the hallmark of LeT. In the past, al-Qaeda has favoured human, car and truck bombs or plots involving planes, but Gohel says that the two groups are now affiliated, and also notes that "Lashkar-e-Toiba even gave al-Qaeda leaders sanctuary when they fled Afghanistan in 2001".

Early reports from India suggest that Azam Qasab has limited formal education and yet apparently speaks fluent English. Strange for a man from rural Pakistan. This, among other factors, has prompted speculation that he may have connections to Britain. A senior minister suggested that two of the terrorists were UK passport holders - and then seemed to backtrack. Other sources tell me that MI5 has conducted financial records checks on a British citizen of Pakistani origin who is believed to have taken part in the attacks, though I have no confirmation of this.

Were Britons involved in the attacks? It is entirely logical that, if a connection is suspected, much would be done to suppress any details to play for time on the ground. Confirming a story of this magnitude would prompt camera crews to overrun communities. This happened to Beeston, in Leeds, home town of three of the four 7 July 2005 London bombers. So much interest could damage a counterterrorist investigation, especially if journalists ended up knocking on doors before the police. On the other hand, all this speculation may be untrue. The test will be whether we see police raids in the coming weeks; only then will the full story emerge.

It is quite possible that even if all the terrorists are traced back to Pakistan there will still be a British connection of some kind. They may not be British citizens but they may have studied here or have family ties. Britain has a large Kashmiri population and while the vast majority reject terror, there are those willing to fund extremist groups in Pakistan or even to volunteer as operatives. The dispute over Kashmir has long driven extremism. Once again, some of those claiming to have been involved in these latest attacks raised Kashmir as justification for their acts.

Slowly, the world is recognising that Britain has a huge problem with home-grown support for violent Islamic extremism; in fact, it has the biggest problem of any country in the west. If these latest atrocities are shown to have substantial British links, Britain risks being viewed as an international pariah state, a country whose children export terror across the globe. The shame of this would cut deeply into the national consciousness and its effect on community cohesion would be disastrous.

MI5 has estimated that 4,000 British Muslims may be a threat to national security; thousands of young men born in these islands have trained in camps overseas, notably in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The secretary for US homeland security, Michael Chertoff, has warned of the threat that British Muslims travelling under the visa waiver programme pose to US borders. A source of mine who has spent many years at the heart of Britain's intelligence apparatus says that more than 50 per cent of the CIA's counterterror effort has been directed at extremists with links to Britain. If that figure is anywhere near accurate, it would represent an astonishing state of affairs for America's closest political ally. No wonder the visa waiver programme is to be changed.

In India, Azam Qasab has apparently said that the terrorists' aim was to kill as many people as possible and to murder US and British citizens. Eyewitness reports corroborate this, telling how the attackers demanded that British and American passport holders raise their hands. This approach bears more resemblance to al-Qaeda than Lashkar-e-Toiba, which used to concentrate only on Kashmir, and therefore Indian targets. It is possible that al-Qaeda has sought to co-opt LeT, just as it has sought to enter into agreements with formerly nationalist jihadist movements in North Africa. This cross-fertilisation, if proved, would be deeply worrying for the west, but for al-Qaeda it is a pragmatic approach, especially at a time when the core leadership is under tre mendous pressure in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There are other clues about the motivation of the Mumbai terrorists. Unsurprisingly, they were seeking to create waves of publicity for their cause. The planners would have been watching on TV as their recruits played out their murderous theatre. That the world watches these attacks on television is part of the message.

The intent of terrorist spectaculars is far more sophisticated than simply generating support for their cause among a few disaffected youths. After all, cold-blooded mass murder is a hard sell for all but the most psychopathic (or brainwashed) supporters of Islamist revival, whose proponents dream of a new world order in which Islam rules supreme. The terrorists' approach is more subtle. They hope the revulsion and anger that these acts have generated could foment regional instability as ordinary Indians start to call for unmanned drones to target as yet unidentified training camps in Pakistan. Deep-seated suspicion of Pakistan threatens to boil into rage. It is already happening. There is loose talk of war from ordinary citizens, and India is just weeks away from state polls and, indeed, a national election. When Pakistani terrorists from Lashkar-e-Toiba launched the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, both sides massed troops on the border while the world looked on nervously; both states are nuclear powers. Now tension is once more rising fast.

The British human rights lawyer Shahzadi Beg, one of the most insightful observers of Pakistani politics, says relations between the two countries are "deteriorating alarmingly fast". She says that "the incoming US president, Barack Obama, had expressed a desire for a regional solution that would acknowledge Pakistani security concerns over the disputed territory of Kashmir. This approach will now be undermined as India argues there can be no negotiation with Islamabad following the Mumbai attacks."

The language of confrontation is intensifying. India’s deputy home minister Shakeel Ahmad has said it is “very clearly established” that all the terrorists were from Pakistan. If this is true, it makes it likely that the attacks were planned in Pakistan, possibly with help in Mumbai from an indigenous jihadist group such as the Indian Mujahedin, which has claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in Indian cities this year. Local helpers may well have checked in as hotel guests in Mumbai, planned routes of attack, assessed targets and stashed ammunition. However, the west would see any build-up of troops or conflict on Pakistan’s eastern border with India as a disaster for the fight against Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda on the western border with Afghanistan.

Even if the attacks prove to have been orchestrated from within Pakistan, that is not the same as official involvement. Contrary to suspicions in India, it is unlikely that Pakistan's civilian administration, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, knew anything at all. Zardari has far too much to lose. He has sided, tacitly, with the Americans by ignoring drone attacks on alleged al-Qaeda fighters in Pakistan's western borderlands, though routine denunciations about breaches of sovereignty are fired off as diplomatic cover. The Mumbai attacks, by promoting a crisis between India and Pakistan, have weakened Zardari, in an already weak position, and strengthened the military who are the true power brokers in Pakistan. He is losing the battle to rein them in and a string of decisions that would have allowed him to exert more control has been reversed.

It is Pakistan's military-intelligence complex that will be the focus of most anger from India. If Lashkar-e-Toiba turns out to have been involved, awkward questions will be asked about where the terrorists trained and who paid for the operation. The problem for Pakistan is that its intelligence service, the ISI, is known to have supported jihadist camps in the past. Groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba, Harakat-ul-Mujahedin and Jaish-e-Mohammed have created a production line of volunteer fighters for the conflict in Kashmir and beyond. The British Muslim extremists who received training in these same camps include Omar Khyam, leader of the fertiliser bomb plot to blow up the Bluewater shopping centre as well as nightclubs and bars.

Not long ago I was sitting in Newsnight's office with a former jihadi from Pakistan. We were comparing detailed military maps with Google Earth images on my computer. We zoomed in to the locations of several of the training camps in Mansehra District, close to the Kashmir border. In a recent court case in the US, witnesses spoke of passing official army checkpoints close to one of the camps I was shown near the town of Balakot. Some of the camps are less than 20 kilometres from garrison towns where there are huge concentrations of troops. It is virtually inconceivable that Pakistan's military-intelligence complex was not aware of these training grounds. Many say that they were partly run by the ISI, though this has always been denied.

What relevance does all this have for Britain? Well, whatever facts emerge about the backgrounds of the Mumbai attackers, the conflict in Kashmir will continue to be used to radicalise young jihadi sympathisers from the west. It does not take much imagination to realise that, for young men groomed for a cause, the idea of travelling to a mountain redoubt and learning to fire guns could be intoxicating, especially when you have been taught to believe that the world is divided neatly in two, between the Dar-ul-Harb, or the land of war, and Dar-ul-Islam.

For the best part of 20 years, successive governments in Britain, as well as the police, MI5 and MI6, woefully underestimated the threat posed by Islamic extremists, right up to the London bombings of 2005. Extremist preachers such as Omar Bakri Mohammed and Abu Hamza were given safe haven in Britain on condition that they would not threaten the security of the country in which they were living. How wrong that turned out to be as support for separatist, supremacist Islam grew from these seeds.

We are now playing a deadly game of catch-up and are struggling to devise policies to contain indigenous Islamic terrorism. We have carelessly allowed many of our towns to become segregated, with Muslim communities isolated from the rest of society. There are none more isolated than the wives of some men from strict Islamic sects in places such as Luton, Dewsbury and the old mill towns of northern England.

While researching my forthcoming film on radical Islam in Britain for BBC1's Panorama, my researcher, Shashi Singh, and I ended up in Bradford. There we met a woman whom I shall call Shazia. She was covered head to toe in a plain black niqab; we could just see her eyes behind a slit in the fabric. This woman, in her thirties, was deeply unhappy. Born in Bradford, she went to schools there, but at the age of 18 was despatched to Pakistan to marry a cousin. She refused. Returning to Britain, she was in effect forced to marry another blood relative, and for the past 15 years has lived with her in-laws. "You have no idea what I've been through," she said, in a thick Yorkshire accent. "Few people in Britain have any idea of the kind of life [I am forced to lead]."

I had to agree.

Richard Watson is a correspondent for BBC Newsnight. His Panorama film on radicalisation will be broadcast in January. He is the author of "The Rise of the British Jihad", published in the autumn 2008 issue of Granta magazine (


  • 01.01.2008 Seven police and one civilian killed in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh (UP). The attackers are suspected members of the HuJI, Sunni fundamentalists who aim to impose Taliban-style government on Bangladesh.
  • 10.02.2008 Six alleged Islamic extremists are arrested in UP on suspicion of planning to attack the Bombay Stock Exchange. Suspects linked to Lashkar-e-Toiba, the same group thought to be behind the recent attacks.
  • 13.02.2008 In Mumbai, the politician Raj Thackeray is arrested for inciting violence, after supporters attack northern Indians throughout the city.
  • 13.05.08 Eight bomb blasts in Jaipur, Rajasthan, kill at least 60 people. A previously unknown group, the Indian Mujahedin, claims responsibility.
  • 25.07.08 Nine bombs hit Bangalore, Karnataka, killing two and injuring 20. The attack is later linked to Indian Mujahedin.
  • 26.07.08 In Ahmedabad, which has a history of violent clashes between the Hindu and Muslim populations, 45 are killed and 161 injured when at least 16 bombs, attributed to the Indian Mujahedin, explode around the city.
  • 25.08.08 Violent clashes in Kashmir are sparked by plans to donate land to a Hindu shrine in a Muslim-dominated area of the disputed province. Five are killed and a strict curfew imposed.
  • 13.09.08 Five bombs rip through Delhi's shopping districts almost simultaneously, killing at least 20 people and injuring about 90; four more bombs are defused. The Indian Mujahedin again claims responsibility.
  • 27.09.08 A bomb in the market district of Mehrauli in south Delhi, kills three. No group claims responsibility.
  • 29.09.08 The day before a major Gujarat festival starts, a low-intensity bomb goes off at an Ahmedabad market. Police report finding a cache of 17 crude bombs.
  • 01.10.08 A triple bomb blast in Agartala, Tripura, is blamed on HuJI. At least two are killed and 100 wounded.
  • 20.10.08 Chhattisgarh police are attacked and 15 killed by Naxalites, a Maoist group described by the PM, Manmohan Singh, as "the biggest single internal challenge ever faced" by India.
  • 30.10.08 At least 18 blasts attributed to HuJI kill around 64 and injure 300 in Guwahati, Assam.
  • 23.11.08 Security forces clash with anti-election protesters around Rajouri in the run-up to Kashmir's elections, a day after paramilitaries kill two youths at an anti-India demonstration.
  • 14.11.08 Gun battles between Maoists and police erupt around Chhattisgarh during the state's elections. At least two members of the security forces are killed.
  • Nick Stokeld

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror

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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