Pope Francis. Photo: Associated Press
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Beloved of the people: how the Pope has again become a leader for our times

At a time when career politicians are held in such contempt, Pope Francis is offering a masterclass in leadership.

When Cardinal Bergoglio was elected Pope two years ago hardly anyone knew who he was. He had a number of firsts to his name: the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas, the first from the southern hemisphere. But beyond that there was only a sense of gentle bafflement and an awkwardness in the wake of Pope Benedict’s retirement: for popes, unlike bishops, life means life, so to replace a living pope was almost unseemly.

Since then, Pope Francis has succeeded in cutting through the language of Italian scholasticism, the constraints of Vatican tradition and the consistent wail of ration­alist denunciation to become the most popular public figure in Europe. In contrast to his predecessor he has established a Catholic populism around a critique of capitalism and a concern for the poor while embarking upon an unprecedented reform of the Vatican itself, most particularly its finances. Taken as a whole, this has led to a misunderstanding that he is a progressive, liberal or “left-wing” pope. It should come as no surprise that the Pope is deeply and traditionally Catholic. What is clear is that his modesty, his continued emphasis on being a sinner himself, and his criticism of himself and his Church have endeared him to people who have not been listening to the Church for a very long time, if ever. Whereas Pope Benedict missed few opportunities to point out the moral nihilism of modernity and its tendency to violence and self-gratification at the expense of love and faithfulness, Pope Francis seems more at ease with temptation and less comfortable with the domination of corporate capitalism and its effects on the lives of the poor.

This can be explained by the times and places in which the two men emerged. Cardinal Ratzinger came of age as a theologian and bishop in West Germany in the 1960s and had previously been seen as a radical. He perceived a tendency in the 1960s generation towards a revolutionary hedonism that could only end in systematic human degradation. In response, he asserted the authority and majesty of the Catholic Church and its traditions, and took a particularly hard line on Marxism and liberation theology. His alliance with Pope John Paul II, who had been a bishop in communist Poland, was resolute.

Bishop Bergoglio, by contrast, came of age as a priest in Argentina under its particularly ugly military dictatorship, and became bishop of Buenos Aires in the 1990s during a period of Washington-led free-market economics that ended in a spectacular and devastating crisis. Argentina experienced austerity and a financial crash nearly two decades before the rest of us, and the bishop was witness to the destitution and institutional breakdown involved.

Pope Francis is the first pope in a century for whom communism is not the main threat to morality and the Church. For him it is of very little consequence. Instead, the main threat to the dignity of the person, their families and work is a capitalism which gives incentives to sin. Growing inequality, the domination of the poor by the rich, the favour shown to the banks, and the costs carried by workers in “restructuring programmes” are things he has witnessed and gives witness about. Pope John Paul came of age resisting communism; for Pope Francis that was not the problem.

I saw this first-hand when I was invited to the Vatican to give a talk on Catholic social thought. I outlined what I saw as the central features of Catholic teaching on capitalism, which provides the political economy for Blue Labour, and its stress on regional banks, a vocational economy, incentives to virtue over vice, and the representation of the workforce in corporate governance. There were audible rumblings of discontent in the audience, and a visiting American put the view plainly that my argument, with its implied interference in managerial prerogative and the sovereignty of capital, was “communist”. There was no one there from the Labour Party to find that funny, and it all felt a bit uncomfortable. But Pope Francis interjected with a question. He asked my interrogators – for there was more than one – “What is your idea? That the banks should fail and that is the end of the world, but the workers starve and that is the price you have to pay?” Things went much better for me from that point – so in telling this anecdote I am also declaring an interest.

His reference to workers was not accidental but central to his argument. For he still maintains a theory of labour value, that workers have value and generate value, and that one of the fundamental problems with the present system is that they are denied recognition as creators and partners in the economic system.

Pope Francis does not fear the poor, but prefers “to weep when they weep and rejoice when they rejoice”. He watches football, he drinks maté, the Argentinian herbal tea, and he delights in the company of children. He could not wait to leave the formal event at which we met to embrace the visiting children who had made the journey to Rome for Argentina’s national day. In Italy, when he visits a place he is followed by people who make presentations of their working lives – they give him their fireman’s helmet, or their wooden spoon – and his popularity exceeds that of any politician. They swarm around him; he feels safe with them and they give him protection.

At one of these walkabouts I asked a woman why she had come to see Pope Francis. “Like me, he loves the Church but doesn’t trust the Vatican,” she said. “He needs to know that we are with him.” I found this view widespread, including among those who are proud to call themselves socialists.

In a Europe that has been dominated by the free movement of money and labour, and that has been unable to break the intellectual and political domination of neoliberalism, the Pope is unusual because he articulates a constructive alternative that is for private property but against financial centralisation, and stills holds on to certain concepts, such as vocation, virtue and value, a century after they have fallen out of fashion with monetarists, Keynesians and Marxists alike.

The crash of 2008 spoke to the Catholic idea that there was a “structure of sin” in the economic system which gave incentives to vice. In this sense, vice is understood as greed, selfishness, immediate gratification and a lack of regard for the inheritance of creation, the humanity of the person or the common good. This led to cheating, exploitation and avarice, complemented by a political system that did not promote responsibility, participation and relationships.

It turned out that Catholic social thought, a tradition initiated by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, contained a more rational and apposite political economy than that of its secular rivals. In this, the Pope is as conservative as he is radical. He said that there was a lack of love in the system, and his words resonated.

The word has spread. In February 2015 the bishops of the Church of England issued a pastoral letter concerning guidance for Christians on the election in May. The extent to which the Protestant church has embraced the lead taken by Pope Francis and engaged with ideas of subsidiarity, vocation, virtue and the tendency of capitalism to commodify human beings and their natural environment is remarkable. Catholic thought has come to England, a place where it has played little part in mainstream political life since Thomas Cromwell was chancellor.

There is a good reason for this. We know that neither 1945 nor 1979, neither the state nor the market, generates prosperity, civic peace and participation. We know that 1997 – an attempt to combine a strong welfare state with robust financial markets – did not work either. We are left with debt, deficit and demoralisation. There is an absence of a constructive alternative to put in their place that can explain the problems of the past and chart a course to a better future. No one was expecting the Catholic Church to have that vision.

This incursion is partly supported by the successes of the German social-market economy, which was stitched together between Christian and Social Democrats after the war. Workers are represented on boards, and there is a robust vocational system that regulates market entry. There are strong regional banks that cannot lend outside their geographical area, as well as specific sectoral banks, all within a decentralised federal political system. Our centralised capital and state model did not emerge from the financial crash in robust shape. It was vulnerable to systemic shocks. The German model has looked altogether more robust.

It is not just that many people like the look of Pope Francis; it is also that what he says is popular. It is not articulated by any mainstream political party in Europe, let alone Britain. The EU, with its free movement and centralised bureaucracies, is as far from his teaching as it could be.

Catholic social thought is pro family, responsibility and contribution, and places a great stress on subsidiarity and relationships so that there can be “more love in the
system”. There is little here to comfort the Fabian wing within Labour that stresses uniformity and universality as the prime aims of a welfare administration. Indeed, that is
one of the reasons he is so popular. He defies the orthodoxies of left and right in the name of a common-good politics in which there is an active reconciliation between estranged interests, including class interests.

Part of the appeal of Pope Francis is that he articulates a generous vision of human society and flourishing that recognises the contribution of workers and the poor to the common good. The other is his remorseless reform of the Curia, the Vatican civil service, and his relentless challenge to a conception of the priesthood as managerial, administrative, bureaucratic or – worst of all – corrupt.

A person appointed by Pope Francis to help reform the finance committee told me that he was devoted to the task. He encountered great resistance and there was denunciation of the idea that a group of lay businessmen should oversee the finances in the place of priests and Vatican officers. There was outrage when the beatification accounts were frozen due to a lack of accountability. This turned to rage when an entirely new staff was appointed to the finance office. The Pope had one word for our besieged reformer: fretta. It means faster, stronger, more.

His address, made just before Christmas, to the Curia – in many ways the heirs to the glories of the Roman empire – as “co-workers, brothers and sisters” was a masterpiece of the form. He started with an evocation of Jesus, “who is born in the poverty of the stable of Bethlehem in order to teach us the power of humility” and whose light was received by “the poor and simple”.

And then he began his reflection on the theme of forgiveness for the Church, for its failings as a body which cannot live without nourishment and care. Like any body, it is prey to disease. At this point, he introduced the concept of “curial diseases” to which the officials of the Church were prone. He spoke of an assumed superiority over others and a refusal to recognise their own sin; of an excessive busyness that neglects rest and the needs of other people. He spoke of a “mental and spiritual petrification” that separates them from the lives of people and of an “excessive planning and functionalism” that was hostile to the power of people coming together and doing something better than they had planned. He spoke of poor communication between different parts of the organisation, of a loss of memory and first love, of a culture of gossiping, grumbling and backbiting, of idolising superiors, of an indifference to others, and a miserable face.

As a member of the Labour Party – indeed, of the Parliamentary Labour Party – I could not do other than reflect on the lessons for my party and movement in this speech, and on how we do not have a culture of reflection and evaluation, of disagreement and challenge. I thought we had a lot to learn from the Church, but I also winced at how hard it was to say that.

Pope Francis has turned the attention of the Church away from sex and towards the economy. He thinks of himself as a sinner and sees God in the eyes of the poor. He is prepared to say hard things to powerful people, and shines a light into the darkened corridors of his own institution. He is beloved of the people. In short, the most important thing about Pope Francis is that he is giving a masterclass in political leadership.

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and is working on the party’s policy review. This essay is published in the spring issue of Juncture, IPPR’s journal of politics and ideas:

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the faith and citizenship programme at London Metropolitan University

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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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