A ceiling at the Church of Atotonilco, Mexico, featuring Christ and Judas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Who was Judas: the man who was offered goodness and said “No”

Was Judas an evil man who chose to betray Christ of his own free will – or did God make him do it?

Different cultures make different judgements about what the worst of crimes might be. The Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, looking back on his complex history in the era of Stalin’s purges and the suppression of his greatest work, The Master and Margarita, wrote that cowardice was the greatest – or “one of the greatest” – of vices and put those words into the mouths of various figures in the novel, including Jesus.

It is a novel about evasion and denial, about the costs of survival in a corrupt world, about who finally is able to tell you the truth about yourself. Cowardice is trying to escape the knowledge of denial; that is why it is terrible. So, Pontius Pilate is left in isolation and despair after he has ordered Jesus’s crucifixion; he knows he has denied the possibility of being spoken to truthfully and is stranded with his own cowardice and with his consciousness of what it has cost. He has tried to escape this knowledge and failed.

The novel, in its wildly fantastic and exhilarating conclusion, allows him a final redemption, thanks to the intercession of Margarita, the lover of the “Master” of the title, a lonely, self-censoring novelist, deeply preoccupied with – of course – cowardice. And cowardice in this extraordinary book is a very specific kind of vice. It is about the denial of what you know to be true, or what you know to be above all desirable. It is about the betrayal of your own intelligence and your own emotion; survival at the cost of suicide.

That perspective perhaps helps us understand why Dante puts “traitors to their benefactors” in the lowest circle of the Inferno, trapped under the ice. It is probably not too clear to modern readers why Brutus, Cassius and Judas are presented as the ultimate in human depravity: is treachery so much worse than other sins? But a medieval reader might answer that one who repudiates a benefactor offends decisively against both love and justice: the traitor denies the voluntary gift of love that is offered and thus negates justice completely, refusing to give in return what is deserved.

The traitor represents the essence of sin: the arbitrary refusal of what is good. Like Satan, who grinds the bodies of the three arch-traitors in his teeth, they have every reason to know what is good. They have been as close as possible to absolute, free goodwill exercised towards them and they have chosen to say “No” to it, to the source of their own well-being. This horrible eternity of being dismembered and devoured is what happens when you deny what at some level you know is true and life-giving. It may be called cowardice in Bulgakov’s sense or betrayal in Dante’s but the underlying insight is the same: this is how we most effectively and incurably destroy ourselves.

Peter Stanford concludes his book Judas: the Troubling History of the Renegade Apostle by writing that Judas’s fascination is that he can “speak to both the betrayed and the betrayer in all of us”. He is a figure to think with. And what we are prompted to think about is this disturbing aspect of our humanity that is afraid of truth, or of justice, or indeed of love, because of their potentially subversive and uncomfortable consequences. They all, in one way or another, upset our hopes for control. In the figure of a paradigm traitor, we have something like a thought experiment: imagine being confronted unambiguously with unqualified love, or justice, or truth; and imagine yourself desperately mouthing sideways, “Get me out of this,” or, “Give me an excuse for not taking this seriously.” Something in human motivation prefers independence to life, prefers security in isolation to ecstasy, or thanksgiving, or simply emotional nourishment. The grotesque image of Judas in the Inferno is of a figure whose head is buried inside Lucifer’s mouth. He is silent and faceless; he is outside the risky conviviality and interdependence of language and human interaction. He is silent, as Satan, too, is silent and ice cold, with tears streaming down his cheeks.

So, Judas can be a vehicle for wondering what motivates the denial of love. It’s a question we can answer by telling various kinds of biographical stories. The bizarre medieval legends that Stanford summarises, which purport to chronicle Judas’s childhood and youth, sometimes portray an Oedipal drama in which he unknowingly murders his father and sleeps with his mother, so that his emigration to Judaea and his friendship with Jesus are an attempted new beginning. Yet there is something foredoomed about him; the legends are there so that the betrayal will not be a surprise, so that we can breathe a sigh of relief that we are not left with a void of explanation.

A more modern writer, the Irish poet George William Russell, known as “Æ”, came up with a less colourful but related thought when he wrote, “In the lost boyhood of Judas/Christ was betrayed.” We need a theory. We need to know that the impulse to deny love or truth can be made sense of at some level. We scan the school photographs or school reports of monstrous killers, looking for some sign that all was not well even then. A few weeks ago, we were gazing at the images of a young Mohammed Emwazi – sitting and grinning among the other children in his primary-school class – and wondering what we and everyone else had missed.

Both the impulse to find an explanation and the admission of failure to find a complete one are morally important. The traitor is not a monster with no history, no childhood, no processes of learning; yet we cannot turn the acceptance of monstrosity into a reasonable decision. Evil is conditioned by our history – the abused becoming an abuser, the betrayed becoming a betrayer – and is also a free self-definition.

There are quite a few theories about Judas. Perhaps he meant well; perhaps he wanted to trigger a crisis in which Jesus would have no choice but to display his divine power; perhaps he was disillusioned by Jesus’s passivity and commitment to non-violence, or (at the other extreme) by his egoism and self-delusion. There is no shortage of modern fictional explorations, from Robert Graves’s monumental alternative mythology in King Jesus to Naomi Alderman’s finely understated and polyphonic The Liars’ Gospel. But in certain respects, they have their roots in the earliest texts. Is there, in the way Judas’s betrayal is related by St John, a hint that the trigger was a public and humiliating rebuke by Jesus? And St John is the first to impute to Judas greed and dishonesty: he is the treasurer of the group of disciples and helps himself to funds. By the time – a good deal later – of the apocryphal “Gospel of Judas”, we have a first version of the idea that Judas is the one who really understands Jesus and does what is necessary to bring about his saving death, apparently with Jesus’s consent or even initiative.

Yet the existence of these imaginative projections, which have slender support in the primary texts, suggests that people felt uncomfortable with the idea of a sheerly arbitrary rejection of the good. Judas, like Shakespeare’s Iago, is difficult to leave alone. Surely there was something? “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know,” says Iago, inviting everyone else onstage to ask themselves what they know of themselves. Judas’s exit from the story as St Matthew tells it, in which he flings the 30 pieces of silver in the faces of the priests and rushes off to kill himself, has something of that chilling, defiant refusal to be scrutinised by those who need to scrutinise themselves first. It is of a piece with the strange detail in the Gospels that when Jesus predicts that one of his disciples will betray him, all respond initially by asking, “Is it I?” It is as if they have already learned the lesson that no one can understand their betrayal – or their cowardice – in advance, that all are capable of giving way to the lure of denial.

All of us could choose darkness. We have to work hard and patiently to discern a glimpse of what prompts some people just that bit further; it is not a matter of predestination but a lethal entanglement in a spiral of destruction and, at some point, a more or less conscious decision that safety lies in going with the spin downwards.

This draws our attention to another disturbing aspect of the Judas story. At one point in the Gospel narrative, Jesus says that he “goes on his way” as has been fore­ordained – but that it would have been better for the man who betrays him never to have been born. For Jesus to achieve his liberating mission, someone must be the catalyst for the final confrontation and also must be destroyed by that confrontation. So is God responsible for Judas’s betrayal? If so, why should Judas be punished? And if the salvation of the world necessarily results in the death in suicidal despair of the predestined betrayer, is that a price worth paying?

These rather Dostoevskian questions leave both believer and unbeliever with unpalatable issues. Whether we are talking about God’s purposes or merely the achievement of definite human good by human means, the challenge is to answer if there are any courses of action to be taken for the sake of the good that are guaranteed to be free from a cost that has nothing to do with punishment and reward. Must it be the case that for anyone to be saved, someone must be damned?

Stanford touches rather sketchily on the theological conundrum implied here (quoting some unhelpfully muddled Vatican pundits apparently defending Judas on the grounds that someone had to be the betrayer, so perhaps we shouldn’t think too harshly of him after all); the complexities are not quite so soon exhausted. The late Donald MacKinnon, lecturing on the philosophy of religion in Cambridge in the 1960s, would return obsessively to this as an illustration of what was meant by the tragic. Are we in a universe where even the most unequivocal good imaginable can only be reached by a route involving an individual’s ruin? And this is one way of focusing a massive question about God and creation: we are told that a creation in which humans are free can be realised only by allowing into creation the possibility of things going wrong. But if “things going wrong” means the abuse and murder of children, genocide, torture, and so on, it rings hollow to say that these are a price worth paying. It simply isn’t possible to quantify suffering in this way, so as to decide that the overall cost benefit is still such as to make the bargain acceptable. Like Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, we may well feel impelled to “return our tickets”, concluding that this simply is not a morally coherent way of looking at the universe.

MacKinnon also observed that the ruin of Judas was intimately related to some of what the Gospels seem to imply about the ruin of the Jewish people. Universal salvation is won, say the evangelists, because the chosen people reject Jesus – and, like Judas, they are savagely punished for that “rejection”, even though it is necessary in the scheme of things. Stanford has a good deal to say about the various anti-Semitic tropes that develop around the story of Judas, including the old slurs about Jewish greed. Medieval images frequently show Judas in characteristically Jewish dress or with stereotypical Jewish features; and Dante’s description of the circle of traitors to their benefactors as a “Giudecca” gives a particularly shocking dimension to his vision of the lowest hell. The name echoes that of Judas, as Dante says; but it is also the word often used for the ghettos of southern Italian cities. Well into the 20th century, Judas was still being used in anti-Semitic propaganda as a stock Jewish character.

So the issues around tragedy and God’s responsibility for evil are by no means distant or theoretical (given how hideously alive anti-Judaism is in Europe today). It will not quite do to suggest, as Hyam Maccoby did in an influential book much cited by Stanford, that the entire Judas story is deliberately created as a slur on the Jewish people, with a villain who has the ultimate Jewish name: Judas, like Jesus and Simon, was about as common a name in first-century Palestine as Thomas in Tudor England and there is no special reason to think that the name must be particularly significant. But it is undeniable that the fate of Judas, constantly re-presented, re-enacted, elaborated, was a regular focus for stirring anti-Jewish hatred and the “Christ-killing” stereotype was freely invoked in “blood libel” frenzies in the Middle Ages and afterwards.

It is true that Judas was also treated as the prototype of all usurers and bankers; medieval rhetoric against bankers could be as lurid as the modern variety. But the weight of symbolic significance unquestionably has to do with the demonisation of Jews. It is a long way from the terrified “Is it I?” of the disciples; or even the way in which, in the liturgy of the Catholic and Lutheran Churches, the entire congregation is invited to take responsibility for Jesus’s betrayal and death. Bach makes this clear in the St Matthew Passion, both by using Paul Gerhardt’s chorale with the words “It is I, I who must repent” as a response to “Is it I?” and by giving the penitent Judas a musical soliloquy that, like all the solo airs in the Passion, offers a framework for the hearer’s self-recognition.

The truth is that the history of Christian teaching and worship in this area shows all too plainly how easy it is to shift the focus from individual complicity in evil to the scapegoating of the other; and so much in the great literary/ritual/mythical complex of the Easter liturgies that is primarily directed at this complicity – and demands that we recognise precisely that impulse to turn away from the obvious and overwhelming good to one or another form of self-protective power – can be manipulated into another tool of such power.

The Judas story leaves some substantial questions open for believer and sceptic. There is no final, satisfactory theory about why Judas should perform this act of irrational refusal, this negative image of justice and love. There will have been, as there always are, contingent things that trigger destructive capacity in people but the mysteriousness of how these work – why one schoolchild becomes a killer in the Middle East and another a blameless engineer or care worker – ought to make us wary of thinking that the rejection of love is something only found in people who are Not Like Us. If we don’t know why someone becomes a psychotic murderer, we are accepting that the processes of the inner life are very dark to us and that this darkness clouds our self-understanding as it does our understanding of others. Judas does an evil thing and is to be held accountable for it. It is not a destiny forced on him. Yet we must also say that Judas does an evil thing and we have no idea why – and we have to recognise that we must go on thinking as hard as we can about what moves people to evil. The question about “lost childhoods” is a real one.

The other question, about freedom, about God’s “complicity” in the possibility of evil actions, has produced even less in the way of a final theoretical perspective. The nearest to a resolution seems to be the hope, sporadically expressed throughout Christian history, as Stanford notes, that there could be absolution for Judas. This says both that evil is real and appallingly destructive and that the pain and loss it brings are not the last word. It’s probably the best we can do in response to a question that we all know is formidable and that is still somehow lived with by believers who are not otherwise stupid or immune to pain. What is worth noting, though, is that it is not just a theological question. The problem of what costs are worth incurring for the sake of ultimate justice or ultimate peace is something that touches any decision maker, at any level; and the brick wall of tragic choice that stands at the centre of the Gospel story is a potent signal that it is a dangerous illusion to think there are courses of action in the world that are guaranteed not to bring loss – loss of moral substance and integrity, of life and security – whatever the generosity of intention.

Stanford sets all these and several more issues running in a wide-ranging and often engaging book. It could have done with at least one more edit: the order of chapters and their content is often rather chaotic; there are some wince-inducing slips of detail (Thomas Aquinas is described as a “Franciscan” theologian, when he is probably the best-known Dominican in history) and a fair bit of wobbliness in chronology and historical interpretation (Dante is not usefully described as a “Renaissance” figure); the style is a relentlessly breezy and colloquial journalese that occasionally grates when the subject matter is as serious as much of this is. I can’t quite see how the chapter on Judas in the iconography of East Anglian churches sits with the rest of the book; and there are awkward gaps in reference to literature, ancient and modern. But Stanford, a much-respected commentator on Catholic affairs, has unearthed some fascinating material and left his readers with more than enough material to prompt some echo of the question “Is it I?”

Rowan Williams is the former archbishop of Canterbury and a lead reviewer for the NS

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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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