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Neither Debs Nor Brandeis, Or Why it is a Mistake Now to Exaggerate Differences on the Left

Neither Debs Nor Brandeis, Or Why it is a Mistake Now to Exaggerate Differences on the Left

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Note: The piece below is a critical response to a recent piece published in Jacobin, the widely-read publication that bills itself as “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture. The print magazine is released quarterly and reaches over 30,000 subscribers, in addition to a web audience of 1,00,000 a month.” I hoped to publish it in Jacobin , but its editors were not interested in the piece, which runs counter to their editorial perspective.

Despite the repeated name-dropping in this article (strange Daniel De Leon never featured) I have to concede that it is a positive development that Debs is once more featuring in the political discourse once again.

It is a shame though that the author preferring his own academic references to American political thought.

In this game of imaginations between Jacobin and the author, perhaps I can join in and suggest that Debs would today respond to Trump in this manner


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I must say, these sorts of articles that, in effect, apologize in advance are discouraging. It reads like, “You know, I am really sorry that I am going to mug you and take your wallet next Christmas. Have a nice one.”

No, Bernie and LIz are not Debs and Brandeis, sure enough. But that’s no reason to vote for whatever the DNC coughs up.

I am sick of reading that distinguishing between candidates amounts to factionalism or bickering. If the DNC wants us to vote blue, it has to produce a candidate or get out of the way. A lot of us long term Democrats who have left would love to see a compromise candidate. But let’s be clear: that does not mean Beto or Biden or Harris, though it might mean Sanders or Warren or Gabbard (whom Isaac fails to mention at all).

I’d sure vote for Eugene Debs if I had a chance. But he’s not running. I’m willing to vote for someone who is less than my ideal, even way less, in some cases. I did it for years. But the party cannot pull another pro-war, pro-TPP, authoritarian out of its nether regions and expect us all to treat that as left or liberal or progressive or populist or popular or reasonable or honest just by virtue of being Democrat.

The Democrats are not doing any better riding on Roosevelt’s coattails than the Republicans are riding on Lincoln’s.


Neither Warren or Sanders are socialists. Though Sanders is more broadly progressive, he is a New Deal populist progressive. Warren, though more of an honest regulator still focuses on the vital problem of empowered money and corporate rule. They would be great running mates and we should support them as our last best chance. Even if elected, pressure from below – street heat would be required to push them forward.

That said, there is a difference today in what constitutes liberalism. As an actual socialist, I understand that liberals can be temporary allies but I know progress is being made when they turn on you and move to the right – which liberals inevitably do. Liberals support the status quo of capitalism but with social programs to ease the worst effects. They support neo-liberal economics and endless war. They are today represented by the DNC democrats and are far closer philosophically to traditional Republicans than to the liberals of the Roosevelt era. Sanders is more an old-time liberal than a socialist and today’s liberals hate him.

what is needed now is progressive-socialist unity. We need to eschew the sectarianism that has long crippled us and to reject the identity politics which divide us, focusing on class and class unity to make a vital step forward with Sanders (and Warren?) in the coming year. If we fail, only an actual revolution can save us and we are not in a place where that seems possible.


Bernie Sanders, while not being a Marxist Socialist or Communist, does keep the Socialist message of class warfare (instead of identity politics) front and center.

Is that enough for this specific point in time? It may have to be even though his other baggage is a very sour dose of snake oil to swallow.

It isn’t about Sanders. It’s about us. Sanders is the most progressive person running that can actually be elected – if we all get behind him. Otherwise we either get another neo-liberal neocon and/or the rising of fascism on a dying planet choking on war, barbarism and industrial toxins. If you are waiting for someone perfect to save us you will be disappointed. Electing Sanders is a tactic that gives us the chance to push for progress in a more workable environment. It is an important step in the right direction. There aren’t any better alternatives at this time.


I agree the Debs/Brandeis comparison is a stretch, but what’s more, it’s irrelevant. No one will be voting on the basis of who is Debs or who is Brandeis. The vast majority of voters wouldn’t know who they are, anyway.

At this point, I will take Sanders or Warren or even a mainstream Dem who will at least push on some progressive issues. What I will not support is a Biden or Beto candidacy. That would be questionable to even qualify as lesser of two evil voting, given that it’s a vote to maintain a corrupt and inadequate status quo, but, more importantly, it’s a vote that just sets the stage for a future Trump, if not another four years of Trump, himself. I regard a Biden or Beto candidacy as essentially a death sentence for the prospect of meaningful change. I will not support it.

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The problem with this article is who the authro wishes to place “on the left”.

Elizabeth Warren is NOT on the left. When one than jumps to the erroneous conclusion that there not that much in the way of differences “on the left” between a Sanders and a Warren one is simply changing what defines the left and this is fundamentally dishonest. It like claiming water in a swimming pool heated to 80 degrees farenheit is cold water just because the sauna next to it runs at 90 degrees Farenheit.

If you support Capitalism and you support the National Security state , you are not on the left. You are on the right and as far as I am concerned the differences between an Elizabeth Warren and the traditional right (Reagan republicansim, Eisenhower republicanism) are not all that stark.

Donna Brazile is now working as a spokesperson for FOX news. Fox news would not hire anyone as a spokesperson from the true left.

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You think the Republicans are riding on Lincolns coattails? You are at least 40 years out of date. Maybe a nice round 100.

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By saying that they’re not, I am drawing a comparison to the Democrats.

“Are” on the other hand is present tense.

Try working it out slowly, B.

The comparison is made and intended in present tense. The Republicans are not the party of LIncoln; the Democrats are not the party of Roosevelt: present tense, present tense.

And there’s no particular reason to vote either way based on ideas about the parties derived from either line of thought.

Right. If you support empire you can’t be on the left. Both Warren and (Mr. F-35) Sanders do.

  1. Dunno if it matters that much if socialist vs. liberal reformer ‘traditions’ are more intertwined than they might seem - they’re valid enough in the case of Sanders and Warren to underscore that there is difference of idea and of spirit between radicals and reformers. It was Sanders’ openly, unapologetically ‘thundering condemnation’ at an unjust socio-economic order that galvanized the long-suppressed left liberal part of the Democratic Party.

  2. But I don’t see left wing ‘sectarianism’ turning progressives into camps that destroy each other on a Sanders vs. Warren question.

  3. As to Isaac’s warning to progressives to be ready to vote for another crappy right liberal? Misspent fire. Progressives didn’t sink the last Democratic candidate - the party did that by running a right liberal. Isaac had better worry about the DP doing the same thing; and people of color staying home, like many did in the midwest; and about right-leaning Democrats and independents willing to vote for an economic populist…but not a right liberal Washington insider: ie., the 12% that went from Sanders in primaries to Trump in the general: