A statue of the victor of Bannockburn outside Stirling Castle. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton Hibbert
Show Hide image

The spirit of Bannockburn

Next year, a referendum on independence will determine Scotland’s future, but the country’s artists have already launched their own fight for freedom.

No one knows where exactly the Battle of Bannockburn was fought. Historians and archaeologists disagree. Some say the killing was done on the low flatland, or “carse”, where the Bannockburn flows into the River Forth; others say the higher ground, now covered in housing schemes, is more likely. We do know where Robert the Bruce planted his standard and set up his command post. It’s a few raised acres from where he would have been able to see everyone’s comings and goings. It was much more wooded 700 years ago, and Bruce and his men had spent months in the woods, training and preparing for the day the English appeared.

The site is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). It’s a national monument with a visitor centre and a clutter of memorials. I went there for the first time last September, at the invitation of the NTS. Finding the place was tricky; I had to cycle through housing schemes with speed bumps and corner shops. The site of the critical moment in Scotland’s history, when it secured its independence and confirmed its national identity, is hidden in plain view, sharing a driveway with a budget hotel. It’s not so much a place as an idea, of course. An attitude. I can’t recall how small I was when I first heard the name “Bannockburn”.

Seven or eight poets had been invited to this meeting, which was almost the last to be held at the visitor centre. It is now being demolished to make way for a new one. The new centre – we were shown the plans – will feature vernacular Scottish architecture, with snecked rubble walls, and will be constructed from local materials.

Inside, loud and interactive displays with moving figures will give visitors some small sense of the realities of medieval warfare. There will be plenty of “interpretation” and visitors will be reminded of Bannockburn’s crucial place in Scottish history. Public information will amplify the site’s resonances: freedom, resistance, triumph against the odds. Then, ears ringing and passions raised, visitors will go outside into the quiet, fresh air and make their way up the incline to the place where Robert the Bruce set his standard, and where stands a statue of him in battledress, mounted on a magnificent war - horse, staring defiantly south.

The area is laid out as parkland, with aven - ues of trees, and it is used as such by local people. Casual paths lead to the nearby housing estates; dogs are walked around the monuments. Aside from the statue, which stands a few yards off, there is another construction, which we learned to call “the rotunda”. It was this rotunda that concerned us poets.

It is a circle defined by a wall ten feet high, which encloses the very ground where the Bruce raised his flag. There are two wide gaps in the wall, orientated to frame vistas north and south. To frame vistas and concentrate the mind. North, the gap frames Stirling Castle on its rock, four miles away. This was Edward II’s objective. Had Stirling Castle been taken, Scotland would have fallen. That said, the road north was also Robert’s escape route. Apparently he didn’t know until the last moment whether he would engage or not and he had his getaway planned. The other gap looks south, over lower land, whence Edward’s army came with a wagon train 20 miles long.

Bannockburn was an unlikely triumph for the Scots. The English forces were vastly superior in number, but the Scots knew their own land. The Bruce had chosen well and trained hard; he made use of the forests, bogs and waterways around him. Driven into soft ground, the English horses floundered and so did the men. The Bannock - burn itself looks a small thing, but it’s a tributary of the Forth, and tidal. Across two days in June 1314, it filled with English dead. The historian Fiona Watson gave us a talk. “It was a disaster for the English,” she said. “Everyone in England would have known someone killed at Bannockburn.”

It was raining lightly as we made our way up to the rotunda. The land is not high – nothing compared to the splendid Ochil Hills a few miles north-east, but high enough to give a sense of landscape, of weather. From this point you can survey the same land as the Bruce did, if you can imagine away the traffic hum and houses. Surmounting the rotunda is an oak beam, which continues over the gaps to form an unbroken circle.

It was this beam that concerned us poets. The rotunda was built 50 years ago and the intention then was to carve an inscription on its inner face, but no inscription was ever made. However, with the anniversary and refurbishment of the monuments, the NTS was taking the opportunity.

Each poet was invited to submit an inscription; these would be made available on the NTS website so the public could voice an opinion. Then a panel of literary and NTS people would meet to choose one to be engraved on the monument.

We huddled in the rain, seeking shelter from the wind under the wall of the rotunda, and began to think about Bannockburn. It’s a potent site. The weight of history, the sobriety of the monuments, the weather and the light, the slaughter, resistance, the subsequent union, devolution, turns of fate, a refusal to submit, “freedom”, whatever that means – the whole Bannockburn thing was ours in a small way to redirect. What sort of gesture to make, what to say? In what language? In what tone? It needn’t mention the battle; it’s long over, and besides, the visitor centre will take care of all that. In my opinion, it needed something forgiven and forgiving, modern, aspirational, welcoming, mature, gracious – and Scottish, and all in a few short lines. The restored rotunda will be unveiled in 2014, which may or may not be another defining year in Scotland’s history.

It’s no surprise that 2014 is the year the SNP has chosen for the independence referendum. Perhaps they imagine that the anniversary of Bannockburn will arouse a claymore sentiment; that events of the 14th century will affect people’s brains. In some fantasy, they perhaps imagine the “independence” debate is akin to that gory feudal battle, which happened somewhere between a bog and a housing scheme, under the A91.

Neither is it a surprise that the NTS, in liaison with the Scottish Poetry Library, would recruit contemporary poets to the Bannockburn task; the association between poetry, song, national identity and historical and political moments is still acknowledged in Scotland. In fact, the writers and artists insist on it. It is a cherished half-truth that the success of the 1997 devolution bill was achieved partly by the work of writers and visual artists. In the years between the 1979 devolution referendum, which failed, and the one in 1997, Scotland invigorated itself, not in flag-waving but in self-interrogation and self examination. It was a vibrant time, culturally speaking. In 20 years a whole generation of Scottish novelists “wrote themselves out of despair”. It is often stated that this refreshed cultural autonomy played a part in securing political autonomy. The Scottish Parliament, suspended in 1707, reconvened in 1999. And now we are gearing up for an independence referendum to coincide with the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn.

It is a truth sometimes missed south of the border that many Scots distrust the Scottish National Party, including plenty who voted for it last time, and many of Scotland’s writers and artists. We know this because they say so openly. A few of the poets gathered at Bannockburn for that meeting are also represented in a new book called Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence.

The book was edited by Scott Hames of Stirling University. Hames conceived of his book because of the poverty he detected in the present “debate” about independence. He noted the politicians’ apparent lack of interest in the culture that brought them to Holyrood in the first place. In the introduction he writes: “Before the party machines and newspapers settle the parameters of a bogus debate, there must be room for more radical, more honest and more nuanced thinking about what ‘independence’ means in and for Scottish culture.”

To do that thinking, he turned to 27 poets, novelists and playwrights. All have stated their case, vented their spleen, imagined what kind of Scotland they want and don’t want, decried the Scotland we already have. Most are old enough to have been around during the devolution campaigns of the 1990s. Some are incomers to the country, from England or Australia or elsewhere. The editor himself is Canadian.

So it was an interesting time for some of us, to compose a bit of “culture” for this great national monument, and also to contribute to a book which claims that “the political significance of these writers’ work is also at stake in the deepening of the conflation that equates Scottish identity with nationalism”.

The thing is, many Scots, myself included, have no problem distinguishing independence from nationalism, and will probably vote Yes in a referendum, not because of a Bannockburn sentiment, but in the knowledge that any Holyrood government need not necessarily be “nationalist”. Or anything else. We can boot them out. In an independent Scotland we could boot out any government that failed us. Imagine! It is not a contradiction to write an inscription for a monument that valorises Scottish resistance and identity, then vote Yes for independence but still hold the SNP in suspicion, not least because it is seeking to appropriate that Bannockburn spirit of resistance.

Several of the writers in Unstated make the same point. They will vote for an independent Scotland because they cannot see any other way to preserve the vestiges of our collectivism, and our cherished public services. We want to vote for common decency and our own maturity. An awful lot of English and Welsh people feel that way, too. We used to be able to make common cause with them through the labour and even communist movements. But not now. So, more in sorrow than in anger, many Scots will vote Yes.

In certain ways, in certain quarters, the country is behaving as if it were already in - dependent. Some people are testing out the shape of the new state, and the people’s relationship with it, even before it exists.

Take this example. In 2010, a mere two years ago, a new arts funding body came into being. Creative Scotland took the place of the old Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen. It was a Holyrood invention, initiated by Labour and then embraced by the SNP when it won its majority in 2011. You’d think, with those impeccable credentials, that Scottish artists and writers, those truculent upholders of cultural autonomy, would like it – albeit grudgingly. Conversely, you’d think that the Scottish arts funding body would know that the country’s artists are a gallus crew, who had thought deeply about culture, nationhood and autonomy. But no.

While some of us were getting rained on at Bannockburn and beginning to think again about just those issues, our fellow poet Don Paterson published an essay in the Herald newspaper last September. It was his con - tribution to Unstated. He had chosen not to address “independence”, at least not directly. His essay concerned Creative Scotland, and it became the opening salvo, or rather, the first swing of the broadsword, against that corporate body.

The chief executive of Creative Scotland was Andrew Dixon, who came from the NewcastleGates head Initiative and, before that, the Arts Council of England. Its director of creative development was Venu Dhupa, late of the British Council. They answered to Fiona Hyslop, the minister for culture. Paterson called their organisation a “dysfunctional ant-heap”, among other things. Among artists, dismay and alarm had been shared anecdotally for about a year, but soon things started moving. Within three weeks of Paterson’s essay, an open letter had been drafted and sent to Sir Sandy Crombie, the chair of Creative Scotland. The letter was signed by 100 artists (which figure soon rose to 400 once it went online). The signatories included Booker and Turner prizewinners, theatre directors, the Master of the Queen’s Music, poets, novelists, sculptors. Creative Scotland got a fright, as did Hyslop.

The letter deplored the body’s “lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture”. It took exception to its impenetrable marketingspeak and noted that funding decisions were seemingly being taken by people with no knowledge of the art form in question. What it did not say, overtly, was that Scottish artists resent being treated as a business proposition. We are not a “cultural industries sector” that requires “investment” in accordance with a quango’s corporate strategy.

Behind Creative Scotland lies the Scottish government, led by the people Scott Hames calls “the electoral beneficiaries of a cultural mobilisation”. That cultural mobilisation was conducted by many of the same artists and writers now weighing in against the new Creative Scotland. Mass meetings of artists were held and committees were convened to discuss writers and artists’ objections. The most recent part of the campaign was the publication of a beautiful postcard. Printed on it was a “constitution”. A constitution on a postcard! Though unsigned, it was written by Don Paterson and the first lines are these:

We, the Scottish people, undertake
To find within our culture the true measure
Of the mind’s vitality and spirit’s health;
To see that what is best in us is treasured . . .

Both Dixon and Dhupa resigned after the artists’ backlash.

This is where it gets curious. You don’t bring down a quango with a constitution. But one looks through the quango to the political attitudes behind it. In this case, the artists were reaching beyond their inchoate funding body to the Scottish government itself and saying to Holyrood: listen, we writers and artists did not maintain cultural autonomy for 30 or 300 years, and achieve a devolved government, only to have that government treat us as a “sector” in its tour - ism promotions and business ventures.

Hitherto, Creative Scotland has demanded endless “celebration” from artists. Its Panglos - sian “Year of Creative Scotland” is over now, but has only been replaced by another government initiative: the Year of Natural Scotland, which requires artists again to “promote and celebrate”. The SNP’s website declares it is “committed to putting culture at the heart of our plans to develop Scotland’s overall prosperity”. Scottish Labour notes the nation’s creative talent and wants to “capitalise on this potential to become world leaders in the creative industries”. Alas for them, the country’s artists are not so keen to be national cheerleaders, or to be treated as means to economic ends.

The idea with the postcard was that you signed the back, maybe appended a message, and sent it to Fiona Hyslop. Hyslop is an SNP minister. Whatever the outcome of the independence referendum, there still will be a Bannockburn spirit in Scotland – a truculent bloody-mindedness. Her party may regret invoking it, when it starts arriving by the sackload on its doormat.

When I was writing my poem-inscription, I went back to Bannockburn alone, just to get a feel for the place and its relationship to the surrounding landscape. It’s not a spectacular site, just a flattened knoll, but the land seems to wheel around it and Bruce and his men would have been able to see what was coming. I went early in the morning while no one else was there other than a woman talking on her mobile as her dogs gambolled under the statue.

At the foot of the slope, cranes and workmen had arrived to begin the demolition of the old visitor centre and the building of the new. It will be ready, and the monuments polished up, in time for a grand reopening in 2014. There will be a re-enactment, God help us, which I presume the Scots will win, but no one will be killed.

As for the Union, that may or may not survive the referendum later next year. I won’t be laying any bets, but even if the vote is No my hunch is that the issue will return. The Battle of Bannockburn was a colossal, defining event. The move towards independence, on the other hand, is a process long and slow.

Kathleen Jamie’s most recent poetry collection is “The Overhaul” (Picador, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

Show Hide image

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