1920: A Challenge to The Left
If you do not condemn colonialism, if you do not side with the colonial people, what kind of revolution are you making?
– Nguyễn Tất Thành (1920)*
One objective brought Nguyễn Tất Thành to the Congress of Tour in 1920. He wanted French support for Vietnamese independence. Socialism was the most left-leaning political faction in France at the time. Though Vietnam was a French colony, Nguyễn thought he has a good chance of gaining Socialist support.
“If you do not condemn colonialism,” he intoned at the Congress, “what kind of revolution are you making?” Yet the French Socialists were not persuaded. They declined to take an anti-colonial stance and Nguyễn decided the join the newly-formed Communists, who would. Twenty years later Nguyễn took a new name, Hồ Chí Minh, meaning “one who has been enlightened,” and became a revolutionary leader.
2015: History Repeating
This past Saturday two black women, Marissa Janae Johnson and Mara Jacqeline Willaford, interrupted a stump speech by Bernie Sanders in Seattle. The resounding response was angry boo’s. According to Johnson, some present suggested she be tazed and a water bottle was thrown at her while she was on stage. The video of her speech has received a 90% thumbs-down rating. The comments section is overwhelmed by unabashed racism and hate.
Yet the Seattle action was not a black failure, but a white one. Bernier Sanders is not just the most progressive candidate in the 2016 race. He is the most progressive mainstream candidate in recent memory. Seattle is not just a progressive city. It is a famously progressive city, which recently raised the minimum wage and led the fight behind Washington state’s legalization of gay marriage and marijuana.
As Sanders himself said before the protesters took the stage, “Thank you, Seattle, for being one of the most progressive cities in the United States of America.” Yet while the black activists spoke, Sanders checked his watch. Afterwards he expressed his official disappointment. During their speech, the audience booed. This is Sanders’ failure. This is white America’s failure. This is not the progressivism that I signed up for.
Black Lives Matter is Not Radical
The fundamental demand of Black Lives Matter is not a radical one. Black people are asking not to be murdered. They are asking not to be summarily executed in the street. This is the barest foundation for a civilized society.
Yet in America, in 2015, this request is so far outside the mainstream of political discourse that the most left-leaning presidential candidate countenances the demand with irritation. In America, in 2015, the citizens of one of the most progressive cities in the country, respond to the demand with unfiltered hostility.
Yes, I support Sanders’ progressive agenda: a social safety net, the end of corporate influence in politics, environmental protection, rights for women and queer people. But who are these benefits for? If this is not also a progressivism that stands fiercely and unequivocally with oppressed people in our own country, it is not my progressivism.
If we do not condemn racism, if we do not side with black people, what kind of revolution are we progressives making?
No Revolution At All
That is not a rhetorical question. The answer is that if American progressivism is not also anti-racist, then it is racist. If it is not dismantling white supremacy, is it maintaining it. It would be a racially narrow, cowardly, and small-minded revolution. In short, it would be no revolution at all.
Progressivism needs to be for all Americans. If it is not, then it does not deserve the name. Like Nguyễn Tất Thành found almost one hundred years ago and an ocean away, the farthest left of the political mainstream isn’t going nearly far enough.
image: Elaine Thompson/AP