Could Sanders Split the Democratic Party?

Shawn Whitney, Canadian writer, filmmaker, and socialist, continues our discussion of the US elections. He argues that Marxists should be playing an active role in Sanders’ campaign because of its potential to raise the general level of class-conciousness. Read previous contributions to the debate hereFirst published by Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century.

Presidential primary season is drawing to a close in the United States and mainstream media are trying to wrap up the dirty business of choosing the political candidates for each of the dominant political parties – so that they can move on to the dirty business of choosing the president. It will be Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, we are told, and that is the end of it.

They are probably right. But that is hardly the end of it. The looming California primary could deal another bloody nose to the credibility of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate, with the potential for a late season major upset by Bernie Sanders. If this happens it would come just a week after the Inspector General at the State Department released a damning report on Hillary Clinton’s simmering email scandal, explicitly exposing her as a liar[1], further cementing her image in the public mind as fundamentally dishonest. A recent Fox poll found that more people thought her dishonest than serial liar Trump with his multiple bankruptcies and business swindles.[2] In fact, what has become most apparent in the current primary is that both presumptive candidates – Trump and Clinton – have the highest disapproval ratings in polling history for any presidential candidate.[3]

What has been different this primary season is, first and foremost, the hunger on both sides of the political spectrum for more muscular responses to the unending crisis of capitalism. On the right there is Trump touting the politics of scapegoating. He promises to build a wall between the US and Mexico to keep out Latino refugees and immigrants. He promises to ban Muslim immigration. Lately he has been using racism to attack the Mexican-American judge who is presiding over the class-action lawsuit against Trump regarding one of his (many) scams: Trump University.[4] And, once a liberal on some social questions, he has run with the reactionary politics that are fueling his supporters. He has enthusiastically taken up the cudgel of social conservatism to attack women, gays and lesbians, African-Americans, etc.

And on the left there has been Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist in the Swedish sense – or at least in the idealised sense of what exists in Sweden. He has loudly trumpeted and won record crowds and enthusiasm by calling for universal healthcare, paid parental leave, free tuition a public universities, breaking up the big banks, banning corporate contributions to politicians and implementing a $15/hour federal minimum wage. While running for office he sponsored a labour reform bill to make it easier to unionize and has said repeatedly “I welcome the contempt” of the “billionaire class.” He is firmly pro-choice and opposes all limitations on a woman’s right to choose, pro-gay marriage and has backed demands for police reform raised by the Black Lives Matter movement.

On international issues Sanders has won support for his vocal opposition to the Iraq War, which he never misses an opportunity to contrast with Clinton, who supported it. During a PBS debate he sneered at Clinton’s proud proclamation of Henry Kissinger as her friend and mentor, calling him “one of the most destructive Secretaries of State” in US history. On Palestine, while he is no radical and hasn’t supported BDS, he has opposed the brutality of the war against Gaza and the unending blockade. He has called for an end to the settlements and a true two-state solution that grants full sovereignty to a Palestinian state.[5] He recently surprised pundits by appointing James Zogby, a pro-Palestinian activist to the Democratic Party platform committee as part of a compromise deal with the DNC along with Cornel West, who called Netanyahu a war criminal.[6] However, it has to be said that he is at his weakest on international issues. He supported the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. And he supports the use of drones and military trainers to fight ISIS in Syria[7], though he has also supported opening the doors to Syrian refugees.[8] On the other hand he opposed the Clinton regime change operation in Libya that has turned into a total disaster. He recruited Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat Congressperson from Hawaii, as one of his surrogates and she has used the platform to aggressively oppose US regime change policies.[9]

All this makes him a bit of a Jeremy Corbyn-lite, though in the context of the United States that is still a massive shift to the left in public discourse and explains his massive growth in popularity. He started from literally nowhere, at barely 3% in the polls and up till now has climbed to the point that he is at least statistically tied with Hillary Clinton and, in poll after poll, does substantially better against Donald Trump. This has happened in the face of unrelenting attacks and belittling in the media, machinations and maneuverings by the Democratic National Committee (that runs the Democratic Party) – to prevent debates, to stack committees with Clinton supporters, to discredit and exclude him, etc. During the primary campaign thus far, something like 1.2 million people have come out to Sanders’ rallies and he has received 8 million individual donations, averaging $27. Among the young – of all races and genders – Sanders completely dominates in support. No surprise given that a majority of Americans under 29 oppose capitalism “in its current form” and 33% said that they supported socialism.[10] All this in the land of McCarthy, where everything left of liberalism has been extinguished from official politics for generations.

Nonetheless, there have been “demographic problems” to put it politely. Sanders has been unable to break through the Clinton “firewall” amongst African-American voters in particular. Certainly he has shifted his positions on racism and police violence, from a kind of “color blind social democracy”, that only wants to talk about economic issues, to vocally taking up the issue of criminal justice reform. His campaign funded a powerful campaign video by the daughter of Eric Garner, who was murdered by police in New York City.[11] He appointed a female Black Lives Matter supporter as his national press secretary and Cornel West has been a vocal supporter of Sanders.

But the roots of the Democratic Party machine into the black community run deep and the Clintons control the Democratic Party.[12] So, even though Bill Clinton – with Hillary’s enthusiastic public support – pushed criminal law reform that led to an explosion of black imprisonment, and even though Hillary has been pretty terrible on race – including making jokes at a fundraiser about “coloured people time”[13] – they have a lock on the support of the Black Congressional Caucus. And that Caucus, led by many former Civil Rights Leaders, like John Lewis, has wide support in the African-American community. That’s not to say Sanders hasn’t made mistakes[14] but the real problem is that a white senator who wasn’t known outside of primarily white Vermont was always going to have an uphill battle against the wife of the self-styled “first black president.” The same can be said about the Latino vote – Sanders has significantly higher support amongst young Latinos but Clinton still dominates amongst older Latinos who look to their traditional leaders, like United Farm Workers co-founder, and ardent Clinton-supporter, Dolores Huerta. Nonetheless, the excitement and enthusiasm amongst the young and the poor of all races and genders has been historic given the institutional obstacles he has faced.

Of course Sanders didn’t invent this anti-capitalist sentiment by waving his hands in the air. It has existed and been growing for some time, expressed in movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, immigrants rights, the movement against fracking, etc. It is a product of the brutality of American capitalism, the long-term attack on workers that accelerated with the 2008 crash and the blatant corruption that everyone can see. But he has crystallized that sentiment in terms of both support and organization. This primary has become, in a more extended and electoral form, akin to the Seattle moment in 1999, when the multitude of campaigns found their focus, kicking off a period of mobilization and politicization that lasted at least until 9/11 (and, arguably, from there morphing into the anti-war movement after a period of disorientation).

This is, in very rough terms, the backdrop. And that is also why this primary season isn’t over – because the anger and inequality and debt servitude, police violence and war that generated the anger, that has found its voice through Sanders, hasn’t gone away. Not least because the Sanders campaign still continues to fight to win delegates to the Democratic Party convention in Philadelphia in July – much to the chagrin of the Clinton-supporting liberal media and the DNC/Clinton campaign.


It is entirely possible, although exceedingly unlikely, that Sanders could go to the convention with the majority of pledged delegates. There are two kinds of delegates – those who are pledged to a candidate as a result of state primaries and caucuses. They are mandated to vote for their candidate and are awarded according to the proportion of votes that they received in their state. The second kind are unelected, unpledged superdelegates – elected officials, party mandarins, lobbyists, etc – who are supposed to make sure that the party selects someone electable and act as a kind of tie-breaker. They make up about 20% of the total delegate count at the Democratic Party convention and they can vote for whomever they want.[15]

That leads to the question that forms the headline of this piece: could the Democratic Party split?

There is incredible anger at the blatant corruption and rigging of the primary process by the DNC and its media allies. This is an important part of the radicalisation process that is happening in the Sanders camp. One look at one of the many Sanders’ Reddit or Facebook support groups demonstrates just how palpable is that anger, with post after post denouncing corruption and evincing hatred of the DNC, the “billionaire class” and of Clinton herself.[16] There are multiple petitions doing the rounds calling on Sanders to run as an independent or pledging to never vote for Hillary Clinton; the so-called Bernie or Bust movement. One such has over 75,000 signatures on it. [17] On Twitter the hashtag #DropOutHillary became one of the most widely used in the first week of May, in response to calls from the DNC for Sanders to drop out and hand the nomination to Clinton. Over 100,000 tweets employed it to express their anger.[18] And a petition by the Seattle socialist councillor Kshama Sawant from Socialist Alternative (CWI), calling on Sanders to break from the Democrats, run as an independent and launch a “party of the 99%” has almost 27,000 signatures. [19]

It’s no wonder. The primary has been marked by numerous instances of real and perceived voter suppression and nasty manipulations. First the Clinton hack who heads the DNC, Debbie Wasserman-Shulz, tried to prevent any candidates challenging Clinton from having any visibility by reducing the number of debates to a half dozen, mostly occurring at times when people were least likely to watch them. In contrast, in 2008 when Clinton and Obama ran against one another, there were 25 debates.[20] At different points Sanders was locked out of the DNC voter database, blatant vote-rigging occurred, to the point that State Attorney Generals in Arizona and New York are investigating voter fraud. And the vote in Baltimore has been overturned, pending an investigation, because more votes were counted than there were voters.[21]

Normally, this might not have garnered much notice. Certainly the mainstream media have ignored the voter suppression, dismissed it or blamed it on incompetence. But this isn’t a normal year, and Sanders supporters are both mobilised and have a pre-existing suspicion of the Democratic Party machine. It will mean that going into the Democratic convention there is already a belief that the DNC and Clinton are corrupt and they intend to steal the election come hell or high water and to sideline Sanders, his supporters, and his policies.

This belief was strengthened when Wasserman-Shultz stacked all the key convention committees with Clinton supporters and completely ignored the proposed committee members put forth by the Sanders campaign – though they have now backtracked to some extent at least on the platform committee (though they refused to allow him to appoint a member of the nurses’ union).[22] What is clear is that there will be protests outside of the Democratic convention against the DNC and for Sanders.

Could this lead to split or a walk-out by significant numbers of Democratic Party delegates? A lot depends on the lead given by Sanders himself, who has consistently said that he will support Clinton if she wins – though he has also demonstrated an unwillingness to buckle in the face of smear campaigns, such as around the Nevada debacle. And in a recent interview he refused to answer two questions about how he felt about the Bernie or Bust movement or whether he would run for the Greens if he lost the Democratic primary.[23] Of course there is maneuvering going on by Sanders to win concessions from the DNC prior to the convention but it is feeding the Bernie or Bust movement. There will be a lot of pressure on him from both the DNC and his increasingly angry supporters to accept or reject the results of the convention. Probably he will be swayed by lesser-evilism and the desire to stop Donald Trump – but this isn’t guaranteed and could be shaped by how harsh is the DNC clampdown and how powerful is the mobilization outside and in the weeks leading up to the convention. It would be a mistake to predict the outcome, as many from both the left and the right have done.

How Should Marxists Relate to the Sanders Campaign?

I have deliberately used Marxist instead of socialist because Sanders is a democratic socialist and millions of his supporters also call themselves socialist. As we ought to remember, socialism is a large catch-all that includes everyone from electoral oriented reformists to revolutionaries, from anarchistic “libertarian socialists” to “leninists” of various stripes. It’s also worth stating that even amongst Marxist socialists there isn’t agreement as to how to relate to the campaign.


Two of the largest (but still tiny) revolutionary socialist organizations in the USA, the CWI-affiliated Socialist Alternative and the International Socialist Organization (ISO), have taken very different views regarding relating to the campaign. Socialist Alternative, whose member Kshama Sawant very prominently won election and then re-election to Seattle City Council, have enthusiastically related to the campaign, seeing in it a chance to raise the profile of revolutionary socialist politics and break open the two party system in the USA. They have gotten involved in local organising committees, though they have refused to register people to the Democratic Party or themselves to register as Democrats in order to vote in the primaries. Their focus has been on relating to Sanders supporters, urging mobilisation as the key to winning elements of Sanders program and pointing out the pro-capitalist, corrupt nature of the Democrats and need for an independent left political party. They have recently been promoting the petition, noted above, calling on Sanders to run independently and to build an independent party of the 99%. As Bryan Koulouris, Socialist Alternative’s national organizer argued in an article last year:

At this moment the biggest audience for socialists to build support for independent working class politics is the hundreds of thousands of workers and youth gravitating around the Bernie Sanders campaign…

Socialist Alternative has been attending Sanders rallies and meetings throughout the country and getting a strong echo from those attending. At rallies we have found a big interest in reading our newspaper to learn more about socialist ideas. Many new activists in “People for Bernie” have welcomed the approach of Socialist Alternative by voicing their opposition to any endorsement of Hillary Clinton and by wanting their new organization to build connections with grassroots struggles. Some of these activists are actively thinking about socialist ideas and how to win fundamental change.

There is a big interest in taking up Sanders’ call for a million student march for tuition-free college. We have taken this call up, building off of Sanders’ program to point towards the type of struggle necessary to change society. There is a big opening for this approach that can help mobilize people into action and prepare the debate against support for Clinton.

Our experience at “People for Bernie” meetings has revealed a very mixed consciousness among Bernie supporters. Among a large majority there is fierce opposition – even hatred – of the entire political system for serving big business, including both the Democratic and Republican parties. There is agreement that a new “third” party is needed and opposition to any support for Hillary Clinton. There is a general sympathy at this stage for our argument that Bernie should not endorse Clinton and instead should run independently in the general election when he loses the primaries.

We have openly explained we are not part of the Democratic Party and will not be registering to vote in the Democratic primaries, nor will we encourage others to do so as we are convinced a new party needs to be built as an alternative to the Republicans and Democrats. In response some, especially those already active in the Democratic Party, have strongly disagreed with our approach. Their pragmatic appeals – that Bernie is running in the Democratic primaries and his supporters need to make sure he wins the Democratic nomination – win the support of a large majority of Bernie supporters at this stage. While the majority does not agree with us on this, there is interest in the discussion and debate.” [24]


The ISO has not gotten involved in the campaign at all, limiting themselves to analyzing the dangers of lesser-evilism, having debates/panels with pro-Sanders socialists[25], trying to engage with them outside of the campaign in other struggles. For them, working on a Democratic Party campaign or even voting for a Democratic Party politician – for instance in an open primary where independents can vote – is a capitulation on the principle of independent working class politics. While there is a recognition that Sanders is raising the idea of socialism, there is disdain because he is running as a Democrat. For instance, on the day prior to the key New York primary, the ISO published – and members promoted on social media – an article with the headline “Why I Won’t Be Voting For Bernie.”[26] And their dismissal of Sanders has been made clear in numerous articles and posts, for instance in an early debate with Socialist Alternative, Todd Chretien stated:

As Bruce Dixon, former Black Panther and Georgia Green Party chair, put it, Sanders will serve as a “sheepdog” for the Democratic Party – his bark may cause a stir, but his job is to bring discontented voters back into the Democratic flock…

What socialists should not do is follow Sanders into the Democratic Party and organize for his primary campaign, even on a temporary basis. History teaches us that this will make it harder, not easier, to build an independent left-wing alternative to the two-party system.” [27]

And in another, later debate, ISO representative Danny Katch elaborated this further:

The question… is whether or not the Bernie Sanders campaign helps or hurts that effort of building the Left. I think it doesn’t help for a couple reasons: one, because as I’ve already implied, for all the wildly encouraging success that Sanders’s campaign has had, it’s building something that for the most part won’t exist by the time we head into the general election. It’s not building something that’s lasting and independent.

And secondly, though Bernie Sanders is getting out a great message around economic equality — and getting people to talk about the “S” word — unfortunately I think he’s also giving new life to the idea that we can take over the Democratic Party from within; that it can be a tool for us. Then that hope is going to be transferred into the Hillary Clinton campaign.

These differing perspectives raise a number of important questions that need addressing and require a little bit of history. Nor surprisingly, these questions are related. The three primary questions are, to me, as follows:

  1. What does it mean to fight for class independence and why do we do it?
  2. Do socialists never work with bourgeois political parties?
  3. Is the Democratic Party the graveyard of social movements?

Marx and Engels first raised the importance of working class independence from other classes as a result of their experience of the German revolution. They spent the rest of their lives demonstrating through theory and practice why this was the case. As Engels wrote in 1871, after the Paris Commune: “…our politics must be working-class politics. The workers’ party must never be the tagtail of any bourgeois party; it must be independent and have its goal and its own policy.”[28] This is because it is only the working class, through its strategic position and power within capitalist society has the interest and the power to overthrow the system and found society on a different, socialist basis.

But what do you do when the working class isn’t politically independent as is the case, by and large, in the United States where almost the entire union movement is integrated into the Democratic Party? Of course the general principle is to organise independently of that party but: a) how do you get beyond small groups of socialists on the fringes of the working class movement and b) does it follow that what happens in the Democratic Party is irrelevant to Marxists and to the struggle for working class independence? Does it not matter to workers and the left if Hillary Clinton wins or Bernie Sanders? Will it make no difference, “it won’t help”, as Katch argues above?

When 1.2 million people stand in hours long line-ups to hear a socialist tell them that the enemy of working Americans is the billionaire class and their paid politicians, and millions more donate to his campaign and vote for him, this seems to me a terrible mistake.


The People for Bernie Sanders (noted by Socialist Alternative above) were founded by some of the key organizers from Occupy Wall Street and have 800,000 followers on Facebook and are connected to numerous pro-Sanders groups, including Labor For Bernie Sanders. The latter has fought against the official AFL-CIO leadership’s desire to support Clinton, herself a former Wal-Mart board member, pressuring them to not take an official pro-Clinton decision. And, largely through rank and file organizing, they have won “the endorsements of more than 80 local unions and four national or international unions, including the Postal Workers (APWU), Communications Workers (CWA), and National Nurses United”.[29] TPFBS were key to organizing volunteer phone banking that reached 3 million New York Democrats during the New York primaries on one weekend alone. And they are organisationally (if not fully politically) independent of the Sanders campaign and the Democratic Party. They have also used their prominence to call for a People’s Summit in Chicago in June, with the goal of continuing the Political Revolution that Bernie Sanders has called for beyond the primaries and the presidential election in November.[30] It is likely that thousands will attend and that this will also provide a kick-off for serious organizing for protests outside of the Democratic Party Convention in Philadelphia a month and a half later.

It seems clear that the stronger this movement is, even if Sanders loses, the more confidence will be generated for other struggles, the more the Democratic Party will be exposed for its corruption and pro-corporate, pro-war politics, the more people will gain the experience of organizing that could provide the basis for a viable, popular third party in the United States. Of course, this isn’t inevitable. Sanders could call for a vote for Clinton and stump for her and his base could become disillusioned and be sucked into stumping for a corrupt, corporate shill as the “lesser evil” but it is just wrong to suggest that this is inevitable.

The argument against working on a Democratic campaign is rooted in the widespread belief on the American left (and internationally) that the Democrats are the “graveyard of social movements.” The ISO argues this, Socialist Alternative argues this, the Green Party argues this, even the Democratic Party-affiliated Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) argues this. It’s certainly true that with the decline in struggle in the early 1970s many tens of thousands of activists were pulled into the orbit of the Democratic Party and never escaped.

And it is true that the Democratic Party as a vehicle for social change, never mind socialism, is a total dead end. Even a pre-eminent Civil Rights Leader like John Lewis and former 60s student radical and SDS leader Tom Hayden are now stumping for uber-imperialist, neo-liberal hack, Hillary. And it is also true that support for the Democratic Party by the union movement has been a barrier to the development of an independent working class political party – a process facilitated by the Popular Front politics of the CPUSA during the latter half of the 1930s.

But it is not historically true that when movements engage with the Democratic Party (or bourgeois parties in general) they inevitably end up shifting rightwards. It is rather more complex than that. As Socialist Alternative notes in a recent debate with the ISO:

“In Greece the former workers’ party, PASOK, found a part of its origins in the liberal capitalist Center Union. In Britain some elements from the Liberal Party were involved in the eventual formation of the Labour Party at the start of the 20th century.”[31]

In the USA the incorporation of the left into the Democrats has to be seen as the product of particular conjunctures, not inevitabilities. In the 1930s it was a byproduct of the dominance of Stalinism, which consciously sought to subordinate the movements to the Democrats (the CPUSA even dissolved itself into the Democrats for a period). With 100,000 members the CPUSA had the organisational weight to pull much larger numbers in this direction alongside them. In the 1970s it was a product of the general, international shift rightwards when the radicalized movements of the 1960s failed to break through. However, there is an example where that engagement, rather than leading to cooptation, led to a further radicalisation: the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.


I won’t rehearse the entire history here but the basic upshot was that southern blacks and their allies, fighting in the Civil Rights Movement against Jim Crow tried to create an alternative, integrated state Democratic Party in Mississippi. They weren’t recognised by the racist Mississippi Democrats and when they took their fight to the national convention and tried to get credentials as a legitimate Democratic Party they were denied. Instead they were offered a shabby compromise of two seats without voting rights, which they rejected. When the official Mississippi Democrats walked out, sympathetic Democrats gave their credentials to the remaining MFDP delegates but these were stripped and their physical seats removed from the convention hall. Did that lead to the end of the Civil Rights Movement? Did Martin Luther King shift rightwards and towards accommodation? No, the opposite happened. King shifted leftwards and became increasingly radical and openly against the Vietnam War that was being escalated by Lyndon Johnson; coincidentally, the man who signed the Voting Rights Act a year later.

This happened because of the growing radicalisation in broader American society, the continued oppression of African Americans, and the inability of the Democrats to relate to the radicalized mood in the country. It was the defeat of the movement outside the Democratic Party, almost a decade later, that led the movements into it, not the prior engagement with the Democrats which, actually, had initially only deepened the radicalisation.

We often point to the radicalism and heroism of the Black Panther Party but it’s important to note that The Civil Rights Movement actually won real gains and was much broader and more threatening to the American ruling class than the Panthers ever were. The Panthers themselves, like the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in Detroit, also has to be seen as products of the radicalisation that was spurred, in part, by the experience of engaging with the corrupt Democratic Party. And the Freedom Summer that we still celebrate as an important moment in the Civil Rights Struggle was, in fact, the struggle to create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Building the MFDP was a major thrust of the Freedom Summer project. After it proved to be impossible to register black voters against the opposition of state officials, Freedom Summer volunteers switched to building the MFDP using a simple, alternate process of signing up party supporters that did not require blacks to openly defy the power structure by trying to register at the courthouse or for blacks and poor whites to take a complex and unfair literacy test. [32]

A similar story could be told about Students for a Democratic Society, originally the youth wing of the League for Industrial Democracy, which supported the Democratic Party. The SDS electoral department put out leaflets supporting Lyndon Johnson during the 1964 election, and even SDS leaders who opposed Johnson didn’t come out against him because of lesser-evilism.

During the 1964 elections, SDS took an ambiguous position on Democratic presidential nominee Lyndon Johnson. While a number of SDS leaders opposed Johnson, they were unwilling to take a public stand against Johnson, who was running against Republican Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was on the extreme right wing of the Republican Party and had captured national headlines when, in a televised debate, he mused aloud about using nuclear weapons to defoliate Vietnam. Many activists argued that in the 1964 election, Johnson, running as a peace candidate, was the “lesser evil.” The national SDS leadership refused to take a position on the election, while SDS’s Political Education Project supported campaigning and voting for Johnson, in effect giving Johnson their endorsement. They printed thousands of buttons that read, ‘Half the Way with LBJ.’ [33]

And, yet, the trajectory of the SDS was not towards deeper integration with the Democratic Party but, rather, towards a full break with it. Ultimately, SDS became a revolutionary group, though of the Maoist variety. But that is another story.

This is not to suggest that socialists should focus their energies on building the Democratic Party or join it en masse, like the DSA. It is to suggest that reality is more complex than any simple metaphor can capture. That suggests that how socialists relate to the Democratic Party must also avoid static recipes that negate the need for real analysis of the dynamics of what is going on, balance of forces, etc. And while it is unpopular to “quote dead Russians”, it is worth noting that the Russian revolutionary Lenin – who was a leader of the only successful workers revolution in history – mocked western socialists who claimed the mantle of the Bolsheviks to argue that no compromise with the existing capitalist order and its institutions and parties was ever legitimate or necessary. As he noted, the Bolsheviks frequently throughout their history worked with parties representing other classes, including formal alliances, calling for votes for bourgeois parties and even entering government with the petty bourgeois Social Revolutionaries.

Prior to the downfall of tsarism, the Russian revolutionary Social-Democrats made repeated use of the services of the bourgeois liberals, i.e., they concluded numerous practical compromises with the latter. In 1901–02, even prior to the appearance of Bolshevism, the old editorial board of Iskra (consisting of Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, Martov, Potresov and myself) concluded (not for long, it is true) a formal political alliance with Struve, the political leader of bourgeois liberalism, while at the same time being able to wage an unremitting and most merciless ideological and political struggle against bourgeois liberalism and against the slightest manifestation of its influence in the working-class movement. The Bolsheviks have always adhered to this policy. Since 1905 they have systematically advocated an alliance between the working class and the peasantry, against the liberal bourgeoisie and tsarism, never, however, refusing to support the bourgeoisie against tsarism (for instance, during second rounds of elections, or during second ballots)… At the very moment of the October Revolution, we entered into an informal but very important (and very successful) political bloc with the petty-bourgeois peasantry by adopting the Socialist–Revolutionary agrarian programme in its entirety, without a single alteration—i.e., we effected an undeniable compromise in order to prove to the peasants that we wanted, not to “steam-roller” them but to reach agreement with them. At the same time we proposed (and soon after effected) a formal political bloc, including participation in the government, with the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries… [34]

The principle involved here was not opportunist or alliances for alliances’ sake, it was very straightforward in its guiding principle, if difficult in its application: “It is entirely a matter of knowing how to apply these tactics in order to raise—not lower—the general level of proletarian class-consciousness, revolutionary spirit, and ability to fight and win.” [35] The question then becomes, according to Lenin (and I agree with him on this), is the Sanders campaign one that is raising the general level of class consciousness and is there a way to engage (ie. compromise) with it that will raise it yet further?

And this is where I disagree also with the tactic of Socialist Alternative, who call for a position of going to People For Bernie Sanders meetings, and other pro-Bernie groups, but not fighting to win Sanders’ election. They are trying to ride two horses and, particularly as the campaign becomes dirtier, more gruelling and under more pressure from the DNC establishment, this contradiction becomes more apparent and dangerous to the credibility of socialists doing so. As a poster on one Reddit group argued: “There is something disingenuous about how they’re going about their “support but don’t endorse” policy. This is an opportunity for them, not to get our candidate into the White House, but to advertise themselves. (italics in the original)”[36]

There’s two points here: if a campaign is raising “the general level of class consciousness” then it follows that Marxists ought to fight to push that campaign to its greatest success. Secondly, it seems like a truism but if you want to win people to your politics you must be with them in the trenches, not simply selling your newspapers and arguing with them why their strategy will fail (which is the position of Socialist Alternative), while you do nothing to help it succeed – even if we acknowledge that Socialist Alternative are showing courage by entering into the lion’s den to make those arguments and, possibly, learn from their experience of engaging with the ferment. This raises three more important questions:

  1. Should Sanders have run as an independent
  2. What if Sanders wins or loses? Does the outcome matter and how?
  3. What does it mean to be a registered Democrat in relation to building the campaign.

Regarding the first question, it should be stated again that for Marxists the creation of an independent working class party in the United States is an absolutely necessary step for the creation of socialism. The Democrats are a capitalist party, run by big money in the interest of big money, even if they sometimes believe that some concessions are necessary to manage American capitalism, rather than simply the brute force model favoured by the Republican leadership. But how do we get there?


As has been argued since the experience of the 1920s, revolutionary parties are built through a process of splits and fusions from older parties. That frequently also applies to the creation of left reformist workers parties in the age of neoliberalism, as we’ve seen in Germany and, to a lesser extent, France with the creation of the Left Party. It is certain that in the United States this will involve significant splits of a varied nature from the Democrats, which contains working class and socialist organizations, from unions to the Democratic Socialist of America (which has about 10,000 members, according to some estimates). Some of that pressure will come from outside the party, through a rise in consciousness and struggle. Some of it will come from inside the party, through the frustration of groupings and individuals as they come up against the corrupt, capitalist domination of the party – as happened during the Civil Rights Movement. The exact configuration of those elements cannot be foretold. So, Marxists are not agnostic as to what happens inside the party.

But does that mean that Sanders should have run as a Democrat? In many ways it’s moot because he is running as a Democrat and Marxists, first and foremost, deal in realities not what-ifs. Nonetheless, according to Ralph Nader, the most successful third party presidential candidate in generations, who ran against Al Gore in 2000, Sanders was right to do so. After detailing how the Democratic Party machine obstructed, sued, harassed, and punished the Nader campaign – including costing him tens of thousands of dollars in phoney fines, never mind the media assault on his campaign and his character, he argues the following:

By running as a Democrat, Sanders declined to become a complete political masochist, and he avoided exposing his campaign to immediate annihilation by partisan hacks. Because if he had run as an independent, he would have faced only one question daily in the media, as I did: “Do you see yourself as a spoiler?” The implication being, of course, that he had no chance of winning. His popular agenda would have been totally ignored by a horse-race-obsessed mass media, which would have latched on instead to a narrative in which Sanders was unfairly hurting Hillary Clinton’s chances against whichever Republican wound up with the other major-party nomination, as if any Democrat is automatically entitled to the votes of progressives. [37]

Nader says he would still not run as a Democrat because of his profound disagreements with the party’s politics and strategy – contra Sanders whose politics are effectively New Deal Democrat. But he is frank that if Sanders had run independent he would have gotten nowhere near as far as he has. Of course a strong, independent campaign would render moot the question amongst Sanders supporters about the need for a third party. But compare what Sanders has done with what the Green Party USA, membership 250,000, has achieved.

Except for Nader’s run in 2000 (who won just under 3%), they have not achieved even 1% of the vote. And in the last two presidential elections haven’t even won votes equal to their membership, garnering around 0.1%.[38] This is not to disparage the efforts of the Greens but rather to note the difficulties any third party candidate faces. What’s more, by running as a Democrat, Sanders campaign has exposed before millions of people the fundamental corruption at the heart of not only the Democratic Party and the American economy but also in the media, where even liberal commentators, like Rachel Maddow, have worked hard to discredit Sanders and boost Clinton.

There is no doubt that this is leading to a fracturing of the Democratic Party base as anger rises. Already somewhere between 25% and 35% of Bernie supporters in polling have stated that they are “Bernie or Bust”. [39] Another poll, publicised in Politico, found that 55% of those polled want to see an independent candidate for president, including an incredible 91% of voters under the age of 28. [40] And at a rally of thousands of supporters in Southern California, where Sanders said “to beat Donald Trump we need to beat Hillary Clinton,” the crowd chanted “Bernie or Bust” over and over.


This is also finding reflection amongst some more high profile Sanders supporters. Former Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton, economist Robert Reich, has been a strong Sanders supporter. In a 19 May Facebook post, although he called on Sanders supporters to support Clinton against Trump if she wins the primary – for which he received thousands of angry responses (11,000 at last count) – he went on to say: “if Hillary Clinton is elected, I urge you to turn Bernie’s campaign into a movement – even a third party – to influence elections at the state level in 2018 and the presidency in 2020.” [41] Shaun King, an activist and popular columnist for the New York Daily News, with a Twitter following of 250,000, and a lifelong Democrat, wrote a scathing editorial on May 20 headlined: “Here’s why I’m leaving the Democratic Party after the presidential election and why you should too.”

“Whatever happens between now and the Democratic Convention – what’s next is that we form a brand new progressive political party from scratch. It has never been more clear to me that millions and millions of us do not belong in the Democratic Party. Their values are not our values.” [42]

It seems clear that if Bernie skilfully handled a split from the Democrats he would take millions of people with him – into the presidential election – and perhaps hundreds of thousands into a new progressive party. Such an act would transform American politics in an historic way. But would he do that?

Up to now Sanders has consistently said that he would back Hillary if she won, that he doesn’t want to be a “spoiler”, etc. He has been more circumspect on what precisely he means on a number of occasions. In a late March interview with Cenk Uygur, the popular host of online progressive news station The Young Turks, Sanders said it would depend on what the “Democratic establishment [is] gonna do for us” and laid out a series of policy positions that he would expect in return for his support – free tuition at public universities, $15 minimum wage, single-payer healthcare. Then, at the end of April, in an ABC interview with George Stephanopolous, Sanders made the same argument.

That is totally dependent on what the Clinton platform is and how she responds to the needs of millions of Americans who are sick and tired of establishment politics and establishment economics.[43]

It’s not surprising because for Sanders, the end goal has always been to launch a “political revolution”, however nebulously that has been defined. At every campaign rally he says the same thing – that it’s about building a movement because no president, now matter how progressive, can change things without one.[44] During every state campaign he has promoted strikes, like the Verizon strike during the New York and Pennsylvania primaries; he has put on stage activists from key political campaigns, from fracking to native rights to immigrant rights. And when he was interrupted early on in the campaign by Black Lives Matter activists, he stepped aside and gave them the microphone. When they criticized him, rightfully, for his initial “all lives matter” comments, he met with them and then changed his position and came out strongly for black lives matter.[45]

At a mid-May rally in North Dakota when an enthusiastic supporter shouted that the country needed him he interrupted: “no, that is exactly not the truth. The truth is you, not me. If there is any person here who thinks that I’m coming to you as some kind of saviour, that I’m going to do it all myself you’re wrong… We don’t need a saviour, we need a political movement… The only way that real change ever takes place is when millions of people stand up and fight back, that’s what this campaign is about.” [46] And his wife, and chief campaign advisor, Jane Sander put it even more clearly in an April interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow:

That’s always been the intent [using the campaign to build an organization]. Right from the beginning, it’s been a two-prong approach: run for president – and the most important thing is not electing Bernie president – the most important thing is starting a political revolution. Bernie’s said that since the day he announced.[47]

That attitude and encouragement is coalescing into a whole series of networks and organisations that intend to continue the enthusiasm and organization that Sanders has sought to spur. As is to be expected the initiatives, many of them launched by former Sanders’ staffers who were laid off after defeats in New York and Pennsylvania, have a wide range of political perspectives from supporting individual left candidates who support Sanders program to launching a new progressive party. But, as an in-depth Alternet article on this movement illustrated, all of them are united in the view that the “political revolution” doesn’t end with the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia in July.[48]

It is also clear that Sanders himself will not go quietly into that good night of submitting easily to the Democratic Party establishment – as much as the calls have grown louder from them and the liberal media for him to do so. In California he has amped up his attacks on Clinton, after a period in which he became more subdued following major defeats in New York and four of the five states that followed.

Previously, he refused to condemn anti-Trump protesters in LA after they shut down his rally. And at the same time he attacked Clinton ally and former Obama White House chief of staff, Chicago Democrat mayor Rahm Emmanuel as a corrupt servant of the rich, supporting the teachers who have waged an ongoing battle with his neoliberal administration.[49] After the fracas in Nevada between Sanders supporters and the state Democratic Party leadership, who were rigging the state convention to the benefit of Clinton, Sanders refused the intense pressure to condemn the anger. Instead he released a blistering press release that blamed the corruption and manoeuvres of the Democratic Party leadership and said that they had a choice – let in the young, anti-corporate Americans who were powering his campaign or become an empty shell and a plaything of the rich.[50]

And then on 23 May Sanders launched a frontal assault on the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, by not only endorsing her opponent in the Florida state primary – Sanders ally Tim Canova – but also stating clearly that if he is elected he would fire her for her bias and corruption. As the Washington Post, a loyal Clinton media ally, stated in an editorial entitled “Bernie Sanders Just Declared War On The Democratic Establishment”, it “speaks to the very real threat that a free radical like Sanders presents to the established order.”[51] As the media bemoans the fact that Sanders won’t unite behind the presumptive candidate and is headed towards a major clash, the same Alternet article above pointed out “Sanders will head to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia with many more delegates than any Democratic challenger in a generation—far more than Jerry Brown in 1992 and Jesse Jackson in 1988.”[52]

What Does It Mean to Be a Registered Democrat?

There is a shibboleth in U.S. left politics about voting for, never mind registering as, a Democrat supporter. It’s worth exploring what precisely this means for those outside the US in particular. Being a registered supporter of a particular party – or being a registered independent – is an American peculiarity.

To vote for a Democrat candidate in many presidential primaries requires that you be a “registered Democrat”. But this isn’t the same as being a member of the party, contributing to it or voting for a Democrat in the actual election. What is stopping revolutionaries from arguing with people: “register with the Democrats for the Sanders campaign and when it is over register as an independent”? In many states even this wouldn’t be required as registered Independents/No Party Preference can vote in party primaries. It is clear that many, if not most, Bernie Sanders supporters would agree with this strategy and it is an argument that could be won in Sanders support groups. It allows socialists to make the argument for a third party and not subordinating the important argument about working class independence while engaging with the sentiment as part of the fight to defeat Clinton.

It is a recognition that there is something historic – and probably unrepeatable – going on that deserves attention and engagement, but that it is only the beginning of a process that will continue after the primary and, indeed, after the presidential election in November. In that process of signing people up as registered Democrats, socialists can win people to the need for a different kind of party and for the need for mobilisation. It is a way to win leadership inside sections of the independent Sanders committees and fight for independent working class politics. To stand on the sidelines either means leaving people – who are moving behind Sanders in a mass way – to other arguments. Simply put, it is not enough to try and pretend that the Sanders phenomenon isn’t happening, or relate to it from the outside via small numbers of people. Marxists should try to find ways to interface meaningfully with that sentiment to help shift the debate away from reliance on the Democrats as the vehicle for change. It is a form of the united front, albeit (as is usual) not on the terms revolutionaries might prefer, that allows us to say “we are with you in this struggle; this is our struggle to. But to win will require more than voting for the Democrats.”

What If He Wins?

The forces of revolutionary socialism are tiny and would have no impact on whether Sanders wins or loses. And he will almost certainly lose, though it could be close in terms of pledged delegates, depending on California and other 7 June states. What’s more a close defeat, given the wide sentiment of a “rigged process” will increase the fractiousness and anger both inside and outside the Democratic Convention in July.

If he loses the answer is clear: the Democrats are fundamentally hostile to real change, an argument the campaign itself has demonstrated, we need an independent party of the left and there is a clear sentiment for this – as well as upcoming forums to push this perspective with credibility, the People’s Summit and the Philadelphia protests. There will be arguments about lesser-evilism but the campaign bodies could certainly be won to mobilising against Trump and against Clinton’s corrupt, neo-liberal, pro-war agenda. The anger and disillusionment is already fertile ground as demonstrated by the already existing anti-DNC initiatives and the mass sentiment for Bernie or Bust and for an independent candidate.

But what if he wins, won’t this lead people into the Democrats in large numbers with illusions in the Democratic Party? Of course that is a danger – and is probably true, as with Corbyn and the Labour Party – but is that danger greater than the power that a victory will win in terms of spurring movements for change because of the explosion of expectations and confidence that it would generate? Sanders himself has demonstrated an openness to being pushed by movements, as noted regarding engagement with Black Lives Matter, and he has stated at every campaign stop that the only way to win change is to build a sustainable political movement of the millions.

That provides the basis for transforming the grassroots Sanders support committees into committees for mobilization outside of elections, for strike support, for anti-imperialism, for single payer healthcare, for progressive movements inside the unions. The potential exists in both victory and defeat to “raise—not lower—the general level of proletarian class-consciousness, revolutionary spirit, and ability to fight and win” and ultimately to create a mass party of the 99%. As I’ve noted, this potential is outside the control of the tiny number of Marxists in the United States, but they could be at the centre of the networks and organizations congealing around the Sanders campaign. It is an historic opportunity to inflict a defeat on neoliberalism.
















[16] Bernie Sanders for President 2016 has over 120,000 followers.



















[35] ibid

[36] I’m not arguing that Socialist Alternative is simply promoting themselves. They are clearly pushing for an independent working class political party, rather pointing to perceptions by Sanders supporters.

[37] It’s worth reading the full article to get a sense of the intensity of the assault by the corrupt DNC against Nader.















[52] op. cit. 35

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