A brief thought on "bend the knee"

Lots of complaining online these days about "bend the knee" - a slogan popularized among socialists by Will Menaker as a jab at recalcitrant right-wing Democrats. Like most of these controversies, this one has stayed at the juvenile level where belligerent liberals insist that socialists should be less belligerent, and socialists cry hypocrisy; nothing interesting ever emerges from this kind of discursive swamp, so I won't wade into it here.

Instead, I just want to make a different point: "bend the knee" has become popular, at least in part, because socialists feel the need to mark and defend victories that our opponents constantly try to downplay and delegitimize.

To be a socialist is to know that even if you win, the powerful will try to deny it; or they will insist that you didn't win fairly; or they will insist that your victory is meaningless; or they will even insist that they were on your side all along, and that the battle that got you there was just unnecessarily "infighting" on your part. Socialists - quite understandably, I think - want to resist that.

This problem is obvious when it's most direct - like when Pete Buttigieg tries to deny and minimize Sanders' early-state victories - but consider how this has played out with Elizabeth Warren.

Over the past year, the debates surrounding Warren's candidacy have often touched on questions that are extremely important to socialists. We held that Warren's open identification as a capitalist mattered, and that it was predictive of her politics; our critics insisted that we were dealing in irrelevant semantics with no real policy implications. We refused to take Warren's support for single payer for granted, and watched her closely for signs of betrayal, simply because socialists are skeptical of Democrats; our critics insisted that we were acting in "deliberate bad faith". We held that our best bet for victory was to rally behind the best candidate (Sanders); our critics first said that we should make Sanders compete for our vote, and then that we should pursue elaborate delegate pooling strategies that involve not competing for Warren's voters.

If you asked our critics about this today, I suspect they would still insist that their position was right; or that their position is being misrepresented; or that perhaps they got it wrong, but socialists got it wrong as well; or that really in some sense we were all right all along. And of course, even people who know better might be tempted to let socialism's critics save face with one of these excuses.

But this hasn't just been meaningless bickering or a purely academic debate! Socialists were right that Warren's identification as a capitalist would be expressed in an agenda that was inadequate and difficult to defend. Socialists were right that Warren was unreliable on single payer. And socialists were right that our best bet, in the end, would be to rally behind Sanders.

And it's important to insist that socialists were right in these debates - and that their opponents were wrong - because there are lessons to be learned from this. In the future when a socialist calls for the abolition of an industry because of the harm it causes to society; when an avowed capitalist tries to compete with this by issuing evasive and contradictory statements, at one moment vaguely endorsing abolishing that industry, the next distancing himself from this; and when committed socialists make reasoned arguments that perhaps we should be skeptical of the capitalist - when this happens in the future, perhaps we can take our comrades seriously instead of dismissing them as inadequately credulous, remembering what happened in 2019.

But we can't learn from this kind of political struggle if we try to whitewash what happened just to salve the wounded egos of centrist operatives and pundits. Over the past several years, socialists have won significant victories - in the discourse, and on the ground - and capitalists, on at least some fronts, have lost. If we don't want these victories to be reversed, or co-opted, there needs to be some general acknowledgement of what has happened. For a lot of socialists, that's all that "bend the knee" really means.