Socialists and “the Bern”

Brian Bean & Todd Chretien Mar 1, 2016

BERNIE SANDERS and his campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination will face their biggest challenge yet on Super Tuesday when Hillary Clinton will attempt to use the full weight of the Democratic Party political machine to break his momentum once and for all.

Sanders faces an uphill battle, but whether or not he can beat expectations, millions of people, especially young people, have responded to his call for a "political revolution"–out of frustration with the continuing decline in living standards for most Americans, despite the official "recovery" from the Great Recession, all while corporate profits are sky high again, and neoliberalism rules the day in Washington. The Bern is a product of the burnout of the American Dream.

Sanders' campaign message has given voice to the sentiment behind the Occupy Wall Street movement–he talks about overturning the Citizens United court decision, confronting climate change, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, making college tuition free, establishing single-payer universal health care, requiring equal pay for women and breaking up the big banks.

Under the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, Sanders has more clearly incorporated anti-racist planks in his program–one inspiring promise is that he will have more people in college than in prison by the end of his first term.

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ANY ONE of these reforms would be a step forward for workers and students. But achieving any of them, much less all of them as a package, will run up against the power of entrenched capitalist institutions.

This raises the question of realism, but not in the way that Hillary Clinton likes to raise it. She argues that Sanders' supporters are wrong to demand too much. That's her justification for proclaiming, "I don't believe in free college"–because, she says, there would be no way to "control costs" if tuition were eliminated.

The millions of people attending Sanders rallies and voting for him in primaries are sick of that kind of "realism," which is another way of saying: Get used to what you've got–or haven't got–because it's not going to get any better.

We want to raise realism in a different way, though. We want to ask whether Sanders' political methods are powerful enough to win the demands that he advocates. In calling for a political revolution, Sanders rightly says that this will require the participation of millions of people. But what sort of participation? What kind of political action is needed to win?

Voting is certainly one important part of that action. The struggle just for the right to vote has been central to the most important social changes in U.S. history: the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War; the long struggle for women's right to vote that wasn't won until the early 20th century; and the civil rights movement's battle against the system of legal segregation and political repression in the South.

More recently, the rise of left-wing parties like SYRIZA in Greece, Podemos in the Spanish State, the Left Bloc in Portugal, and the Workers and Left Front in Argentina have revitalized the strategy of building electoral alternatives to the left of traditional parties.

However, voting for a politician, even a good one, can never replace the need for union drives, strikes, occupations, mass protests and more. As the late historian Howard Zinn once said: "What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but who is 'sitting in'–and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change."

There is no reason why building social movements and voting in elections should be counterposed. They should both be part of the left's strategies. But sometimes voting for a particular party goes against the interests of working people and the oppressed who are trying to organize those social movements.

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THIS BRINGS us to the question of America's two mainstream political parties–because candidates, despite the cult of individual politicians in the U.S., operate through and as members of one party or the other. Sanders himself has made his own position consistently clear during the primary campaign–he reiterated it at a candidates' debate in New Hampshire:

I am running for president as a Democrat and, if elected, not only do I hope to bring forth a major change in national priorities, but–let me be frank–I do want to see major changes in the Democratic Party. I want to see working people and young people come into the party in a way that doesn't exist now.

His stated goal is to transform the Democratic Party from an enthusiastically pro-capitalist party–one that has contributed to creating all the problems stoking the Bern in the first place–into a party that can help lead a "political revolution." Can it be done?

One thing is for sure: The Democrats' corporate funders, party functionaries and elected officials are dead set against it. As Paul Starr, a senior adviser in the Bill Clinton White House, said: "Liberals do not sanctify the free market, but they care about preserving the incentives that stimulate innovation and investment and make possible a flourishing economy. Socialism and Sanders have their heart in a different place–economic equality before all else….Socialists should know the difference, and liberals should, too."

Each time that radicals have attempted to fundamentally change the Democratic Party–the Populists in the 1890s, to the Communist Party in the late 1930s and 1940s, the civil rights and Black Power movements in the 1960s and '70s, left-wing activists in Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s–they have been defeated. An article for Jacobin by Paul Heideman summed up the reason for the failure of such strategies in a headline: "It's Their Party."

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FROM ALL this, we should conclude that the Democratic Party cannot be a vehicle for the kind of social change that is attracting people to Bernie Sanders today. The Democrats have been the primary mechanism that capital uses to incorporate and dominate social movements and trade unions. For our votes to be meaningful, working people need a party that fights for our own goals, our unions and our social movements.

The widespread popularity of the Sanders campaign has naturally and rightly prompted a lively and healthy debate among socialist organizations in the U.S. (and internationally) about how to understand and relate to it.

Some socialist organizations have long taken an "inside" approach to the Democrats, very similar to the one that Sanders himself urges. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), for example, is saying #WeNeedBernie: "By running in the Democratic primaries, Independent Senator Sanders will challenge the dominant discourse of neoliberal Democrats that privilege corporate business interests over those of all working people."

Other socialists, like author and activist Cornel West, follow an "inside-outside" approach of critically endorsing certain Democrats, while at the same time pointing to the need for an alternative party. So West is endorsing "Brother Bernie in the primaries," but not as "an affirmation of the neoliberal Democratic Party or a downplaying of the immorality of the ugly Israeli occupation of Palestinians."

The strength of West's position is that it not only engages the mass enthusiasm for Sanders' campaign, but it points out Sanders' shortcomings, looks beyond the next couple months' electoral calendar and raises the need for a political party that is not hostage to the "establishment," as Sanders likes to call it.

However, we believe this approach, as well as DSA's, underestimates the importance and the difficulty of trade unions and social movements winning their own political independence–and of recruiting a new generation of socialists to the conviction that the Democratic Party, and not simply bad Democrats, is their enemy, not a potential vehicle for revolution.

After all, if we can support Sanders "this time," then what happens if another progressive candidate steps forward "next time?" The logic of "this time" perpetually puts off the task of building an alternative, even if that alternative is only just forming.

There is a long tradition of radicals and revolutionaries organizing independently of the two-party system. No one articulated the "outside" strategy better than the man who Sanders claimed as his hero: Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs. On the presidential campaign trail in 1904, Debs argued:

The Republican and Democratic Parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles. With either of those parties in power, one thing is always certain, and that is that the capitalist class is in the saddle and the working class under the saddle.

The ISO maintains that Debs' point is just as correct today as it was a century ago, and it is equally important to fight to put his ideas into practice. From our point of view, it is not only a question of taking a principled stand against the sort of political atrocities that Cornel West describes, but it's also a practical matter of preparing the organizational and ideological ground for genuine alternative.

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THESE STARTING points lead us to disagreement with the approach that Socialist Alternative (SA) has adopted as an organization regarding the Sanders campaign.

In November 2013, SA's Kshama Sawant set an example for the whole left with her successful campaign for the Seattle City Council as a socialist opposed to participation in the Democratic Party. Now, however, SA has made the problematic decision to endorse Sanders and take part in his campaign within the Democratic Party.

Last May, the ISO and SA published an exchange of views about Sanders. At the time, leading SA member Philip Locker wrote:

Socialist Alternative will at each stage politically explain the role of the Democratic Party as a big business party and argue for building a movement that can create a real alternative for working class people. We will not help to sign people up for the Democratic Party.

Yet as we warned at the time, the logic of "boldly intervening in the Sanders campaign" has led SA inexorably to "sign people up for the Democratic Party"–because in most places, including Sawant's state of Washington, the only way to vote for Sanders in a state primary is to register as a Democrat.

SA has essentially adopted the old "inside/outside" approach by launching "#Movement4Bernie to help build a grassroots, movement-based campaign that Bernie's campaign will need to defeat the political representatives of big business," as the group's newspaper wrote in early February.

As we and other writers for have stated many times, socialists should celebrate and engage with the large numbers of people attracted to Sanders' message, especially his defense of a version of socialism.

However, we believe it is another thing altogether for a socialist organization that claims to stand in Debs' tradition to enter the Democratic Party. Despite SA's insistence that it eventually wants to build an alternative to the Democrats, right now, it is helping strengthen the left wing of the Democratic Party, and history tells us that the Democrats' left will fall into line behind the ultimate candidate, no matter how right wing.

SA's use of an inside-outside strategy has the consequence of blurring the class nature of the Democratic Party. The group's literature reflects an accommodation to Sanders' own attitudes: His identification of the "problem" with the Democratic Party being the "leadership," the "establishment" or the "corporate wing" of the party, not the party as a whole.

SA places so much emphasis on supporting Sanders against Clinton that it has downplayed the worst of Sanders political positions–on imperialism and foreign policy.

SA rightly calls Clinton a "warmonger," but never challenges Sanders' pro-war positions in the same terms, even when the two candidates' positions were identical, as with their support for George W. Bush's invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

In an article from its paper, SA notes that Sanders' backing for Obama's bombing campaign in Syria "falls short" of a real international socialist position. But this doesn't capture the full scope of Sanders' endorsement for an imperialist catastrophe–and the liberal Islamophobia that goes with it–when he says, "We have to understand that the Muslim nations in the region…[are] going to have to get their hands dirty, their boots on the ground. They are going to have to take on ISIS. This is a war for the soul of Islam."

Sanders' liberal pro-war views should not be relegated to the margins of the left's discussions. If for no other reason than that any "revolution" around domestic political priorities will be severely limited without a serious proposal to dramatically cut military spending, which represents more than half of the federal government's discretionary spending.

Unfortunately, there isn't a mention of anything to do with the Pentagon or the U.S. war machine on the #Movement4Bernie website that SA has set up.

If Sanders were to split with the Democrats and run for president as an independent, it might be appropriate for socialists to support him against the Democratic candidate, but we would have to make sharp and open criticism of the pro-imperialist policies at the heart of his campaign.

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RATHER THAN participating in a campaign within the Democratic Party, even one with a radical message like Sanders has, we think Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, got it right in a Nation article titled "Why Hillary Doesn't Deserve the Black Vote":

The biggest problem with Bernie, in the end, is that he's running as a Democrat–as a member of a political party that not only capitulated to right-wing demagoguery but is now owned and controlled by a relatively small number of millionaires and billionaires….Even if Bernie's racial-justice views evolve, I hold little hope that a political revolution will occur within the Democratic Party without a sustained outside movement forcing truly transformational change. I am inclined to believe that it would be easier to build a new party than to save the Democratic Party from itself.

The new party Alexander envisions will not be built by campaigning inside the Democratic Party. It will emerge when larger sections of the working class break with support for the Democrats–and that will require a pre-existing and organizationally independent beacon that can cut through the fog of internal Democratic Party battles.

Here, revolutionary socialist organizations have a vital role to play, not just during a future rise in social discontent and class struggle, but right now, during Election 2016.

As one part of contributing to independent politics and organization in the here and now, the ISO is supporting the Green Party's likely presidential candidate Jill Stein this year. As Stein points out, in the very likely event that Clinton captures the nomination, the Green Party candidate will be the only one on the ballot who stands for the reforms Sanders is promoting in the primaries.

But this is just one element in a process that extends beyond the ballot box.

As we wrote above, "the Bern" is a product–and only one product–of the burnout of the American Dream. Enthusiasm for Sanders is symptomatic of the same anger and determination to resist that drove the Occupy movement; the strikes of Chicago and Seattle teachers, among many others; the Black Lives Matter against racist police violence; and the tenacious boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign in solidarity with Palestine.

The next couple months will be one phase in a longer process in which untold thousands of people are becoming political organizers. They are thinking through competing ideas of what sort of revolution we need and how to achieve it. What they decide matters.

In that context, we should encourage debate and discussion among socialists and radicals, inside and outside the Sanders campaign, and work together where we can in united fronts to build solidarity and social movements. Alongside debates about immediate electoral tactics, we have to talk about strategies based on the sort of social and class power that we will need to win–and correctly identify the obstacles to exercising that power, the Democratic Party chief among them.

Instead of choosing paths we know will lead to dead ends, we should develop and promote principles, politics and organization that will chart the shortest possible course to social transformation. We have no time to waste.


This article originally appeared at Socialist


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