Bernie Sanders won’t announce until April 30 whether he’ll run for president or not but he’s already been roundly condemned by people who are closest to him ideologically. In so doing, they reveal their own political failings. These condemnations fall into one of three categories:
- Sanders isn’t a socialist.
- Sanders shouldn’t run against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party primary.
- Sanders supports [insert your favorite unforgivable sin here].
Good luck convincing any of the excited Texans below that 1, 2, or 3 are good enough reasons not to vote and campaign for Sanders this election cycle.
But let us deal with each of these charges in turn and see what they reveal about those who make them.
Not a Socialist!
The ‘not socialist‘ charge is usually based on the fact that Sanders continually talks up Scandinavian social democracy/welfare states, as if socialists by definition cannot favor fighting for social-democratic or welfare-state capitalism as an intermediate step (or series of steps) before full communism.
Few who level this charge stop to consider why Sanders has spent so of his political career advocating measures that fall well short of the dictatorship of the proletariat. For socialists elected to positions within the capitalist state, the Scandinavian model provides a signpost, a directional guidance, for where to fight and push the policies of that state in situations where dynamiting the whole edifice of bourgeois democracy in a proletarian revolution is not on the cards in the near/medium-term future. Talking up the dictatorship of the proletariat certainly hasn’t fixed the teeth of working people too poor to afford to see a dentist or successfully spearheaded Congressional opposition to Newt Gingrich’s so-called ‘Contract with America,’ a now-forgotten hard-right package of New Deal-destroying legislation.
If you think Sanders is a fake socialist because he fights in the short and medium-term for social-democratic reforms, please join one of the dozen real socialist groups below dedicated to prattling on harmlessly about the dictatorship of the proletariat even as America’s remaining labor unions are ground into dust and the country becomes the world’s pre-eminent high-tech, low-wage economy. But before you do sign up, ask yourself: have these groups actually done anything for the proletariat, for winning the mass following among the working class necessary to actually establish the dictatorship they talk up?
Accusing others of being ‘sellouts’ or ‘not socialist’ may be a good way to avoid honestly addressing your own bankruptcy but it doesn’t do a damn thing to advance any struggle anywhere.
Not a Democrat!
The second objection, like the first, is allegedly rooted in first principles common to all socialists. But Sanders running in the Democratic presidential primary against Hillary Rodham Clinton is not going to make him a Democrat any more than Ralph Nader running as the Green Party’s presidential candidate in 2000 made him a Green or Roseanne Barr running as the Peace and Freedom Party (PFP) candidate in 2012 made her a PFPer.
Being a party’s candidate in the American political system does not necessarily make you the party’s property lock, stock, and barrel; if it did, New York’s Working Families Party would be a force to be reckoned with and not a pathetic plaything manipulated by powerful Democrats like Bill De Blasio and Andrew Cuomo.
Sanders has run independently of the Democratic Party for his entire political career, even when it would have been a lot easier to get on the ballot as a Democrat and win a given election as a Democrat. Someone who takes the harder, principled road is not an opportunist — quite the opposite.
So why is Sanders even thinking about running in the Democratic primary if he is in principle against the Democratic Party? Because of the kind of campaign he wants to run. He is not running an ‘educational’ presidential campaign and refuses to serve as a spoiler a la Nader in 2000. Sanders is running to win. Anything less is a waste of time, strategically and politically. Unlike many socialists and Greens, Sanders is not in the business of asking people to waste their vote on a hopeless or useless cause. Since he is running to win, he is not looking to get on the ballot in all 50 states as an independent (probably impossible to do even with his name recognition and popularity in left-liberal circles) and uninterested in running even as a safe state Green Party candidate (this blog’s strategic preference).
To win a U.S. presidential election in present-day conditions where third parties are not a meaningful force and cannot win even a single Electoral College vote, Sanders needs to be the candidate of one of the two major parties who alone enjoy ballot access in all 50 states and have the near-automatic allegiance of over 100 million voters between them. Since a socialist winning the Republican primary is out of the question, that leaves the Democratic primary as the only road to the White House.
It is these particular, tactical considerations — combined with Sanders’ decision to run to win rather than to ‘educate’ — that compel him to jettison his life-long independence from the Democratic Party in this election cycle.
But just because Sanders is abandoning his principled stance of independence from the Democratic Party (for arguably sound tactical reasons) doesn’t mean that we should follow him.
The case for following Sanders into enemy territory cannot be based on blind Sanders-chasing but on an independent assessment of what Sanders is doing, the objective political impact it will have, and what our objectives as radicals and socialists are.
The case against following Sanders into the Democratic presidential primary is simple and straightforward — it violates socialist principles. But in case you haven’t noticed, adherence to socialist principles alone hasn’t gotten socialism as a movement very far in the United States.
This isn’t an argument against being principled but an acknowledgement that the trick is in applying socialist principles to the actually-existing (highly unfavorable) conditions in this country whose two-party political system is without a viable radical, socialist, communist, or even a milquetoast labor party. Our challenge is to derive overall strategies and day-to-day tactics from first principles such that we advance closer and closer to our socialist final goal step by step, transforming highly unfavorable conditions into very favorable conditions along the way.
Applying socialist principles in a creative way to highly unfavorable, present-day conditions is exactly what Bernie Sanders did when he gave up running for office as the candidate of the tiny far left Liberty Union Party sect and defeated six-term Democratic incumbent Gordon Paquette in a four-way race in Burlington, Vermont to become the city’s mayor as an independent way back in 1981.
Since then, Burlington socialists successfully fought to create a three-party system in the city council and were continually re-elected as mayors of Burlington almost without interruption until 2012. Building on these successes, they went on to construct America’s only successful leftist third party at the state level, the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP). So while the broader American socialist left shrank and collapsed, becoming a hollowed-out moribund graveyard bereft of new ideas, new forces, or political vitality, Vermont socialists built a little party that could put single-payer health care on the state’s agenda and help block the charter school movement’s destruction of public education and teachers’ unions.
Sneer all you want but Vermont’s working people are better off today than their counterparts in the other 49 states thanks to Sanders and the VPP’s attempt to create an island of social democratism in a rising sea of Reaganism.
Sanders’ fight to win first the Democratic presidential primary and then the presidency in the 2016 election is incredibly important for two reasons:
- Sanders is touching on the fundamental contradiction the Democratic Party is built on between its voting base and its funding base. The Democratic Party is useful for Wall Street only insofar as the party commands popular support from Main Street –from women, Blacks, the LGBTQ community, unions, Hispanics. Rousing these social sectors and turning them against Wall Street and Corporate America in an inner-party struggle thereby disrupting the Democratic coalition may be the only way to begin breaking the party as a viable institution of bourgeois rule and political domination since the spoiler strategy has failed to even dent support among these groups for Democratic presidential candidates.
- Sanders’ campaign offers American radicals the once-in-a-generation opportunity to influence and politically engage tens of thousands of left/liberal voters who would never dream of attending to a socialist meeting in a million years. And unless and until socialists develop a mass following in this country that numbers in the hundreds of thousands and eventually millions, we’re not advancing a single centimeter towards socialism.
This is how what Sanders is doing fits into our objectives and why shouting at him and his supporters from the sidelines of the struggle they are waging is decidedly not in our interests.
In 2008, the Iowa caucuses alone on the Democratic side drew 239,000 voters to the polls. In 2016, these voters (who rejected Clinton by a margin of 66% the last time around) will have to choose between between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, between someone who voted against the Iraq war and someone who voted for the Iraq war, between socialism (or social democracy) and fake liberal capitalism, between the politics of unrelenting struggle and the vapid politics of triangulation. Socialists ought to be in the thick of these voters’ conversations and debates. The only way to do that and to begin exerting influence over the masses — and through them, the political direction of the country — is by endorsing his campaign, switching our voter registrations to ‘Democrat,’ and volunteering to be part of the Red Army he needs to go to war with the Clinton, Inc. juggernaut. The core of Sanders’ army (particularly its cadre of campaign directors, media people, volunteer coordinators) should be made up of revolutionaries, of people who know the ins and outs of Marx and Debs, of Chavismo and SYRIZA, who can provide clear and convincing answers to millions of people who are fed up with working harder and harder for less and less while being robbed of their voices politically by the capitalist two-party racket.
The unfortunate reality is that we socialists need Sanders more than he needs us. He and his campaign will reach and influence far more people than all our tiny left organizations put together multiplied by a factor of 10, 100, or 1,000 if our share of the 2012 Iowa vote is any indicator.
People who object to working within the framework of the Democratic Party for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election need to explain how doing so would make the above situation any worse than it already is. People who object to working within the framework of the Democratic Party for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election need to explain how doing so would damage third parties like the Greens that can’t win 1% of the popular vote or raise even $1 million, even in favorable circumstances when there is no ‘left’ Democrat in the race.
We’ll know by mid-2016 if Sanders is defeated by Clinton for the nomination and when that happens there is nothing to stop comrades from switching their support to the Green Party or the myriad of socialist presidential candidates and de-registering as Democrats. The cause of socialism in America will not be set back one iota by working within the Democratic Party for Sanders provided we are clear that this is an exceptional circumstance and a tactical necessity rather than standard operating procedure.
Sanders’ Democratic voters and campaign activists will undoubtedly learn from their own bitter experience that the Democratic Party is anything but democratic, that the deck was stacked against Sanders from the start. However, they will be far less likely to draw socialist conclusions about the two-party system or become socialists themselves if the only socialists they meet (besides Sanders) are enemies of their campaign who front like they are master political strategists despite being unable to organize anything other than a circular firing squad aimed at fellow leftists.
What we don’t know is what Sanders will ask his supporters to do if/when he’s defeated. He could endorse Clinton on a lesser-evil basis or he could just as easily refuse to endorse Clinton at the end of the process just as Ron Paul refused to endorse John McCain after losing to him in the 2008 Republican primary. Either way, Sanders voters and campaigners are are not going to listen to what we have to say about who to vote for in November 2016 if we are hostile to them and their effort no matter how theoretically ‘correct’ our hostility is.
The bottom line here is that radicals who object to working within the Democratic Party for Sanders against Clinton seem to think the party is like Ebola — once you touch it, your life is over — which shows that they don’t have a clue about how to apply their principle of opposing the Democratic Party to the task of breaking it up into its constituent elements and destroying it.
Sanders Supports (fill in the blank) — UGH!
Sanders’ positions on a number of issues range from reactionary to needs improvement. For example, when he spoke at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network he spoke about:
“…income inequality, unemployment, the minimum wage, pay equity, single-payer health care, and trade deals. He proposed pilloring tax havens outside the U.S. to help create millions of new jobs by rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.”
Not a word of support of #BlackLivesMatter or the struggle to stop killer cops. That silence helped 1% champion Rahm Emmanuel crush Chuy Garcia in the Chicago mayoral race and it’s unlikely to play well in South Carolina primary where Black voters helped Obama beat Hillary 55% to 27%. Sanders will have to outgrow his comfort zone and embrace the seething rage of the Black community over unchecked police brutality if he really wants to beat Clinton.
But those who write-off or oppose Sanders on the basis of this or that issue or stance substitute their own ideological preferences (or worse yet, emotional reactions [ugh!]) for class-based political analysis. One of the best means of determining the class character and significance of a campaign or candidate is to follow the money. Below is a list of the top donors to Clinton and Sanders and this list couldn’t make the capital-versus-labor nature of their conflict any clearer.
When Upton Sinclair ran for governor on the Democratic Party ticket in 1934, the Socialist Party and Communist Party — much as ‘left’ opponents of Sanders today — withheld their support from his campaign, accusing Sinclair of ‘supporting capitalism,’ ‘spreading reformist illusions,’ and the like. However, California big business, real estate interests, and Hollywood moguls knew better than these so-called leftists that Sinclair didn’t support them or their capitalist interests. They mobilized millions of dollars to create the first attack ads in American history to prevent the country’s first socialist governor from coming to power:
We can expect the same (if not worse) from Hillary Clinton and her corporate backers who plan to raise $2.5 billion in their quest to
win buy the White House. It would both be a dereliction of duty and self-sabotage if socialists didn’t aid Sanders and his working-class supporters in their battle to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.