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If There Is to Be Any Future for the U.S. Left, We Must Break with Sanders and the Democrats

The class struggle sparked by the pandemic and the uprising against racist police brutality are showing the limits of incrementalist politics. While millions are asking for radical change, Bernie Sanders puts forward lukewarm reforms and strives to secure electoral support for Joe Biden.

Juan Cruz Ferre

June 30, 2020
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Charlie Neibergall/AP/Shutterstock

The political reality in the United States has changed dramatically in the past three months. Generation Z activists are leading marches against racism and demanding to change everything, rejecting de facto the politics of the two-party system and providing new momentum for the Left. But a sector of socialists insists on looping back to the politics of moderate reform. In particular, Jacobin magazine keeps spouting articles praising Bernie Sanders like a broken record, while Sanders, in turn, is campaigning for Joe Biden.

A few months ago, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States, and it not only caught the government off guard but also found the Left flat-footed. The pandemic hit the ground and pushed thousands of workers to engage in wildcat strikes, work disruptions, and other forms of class struggle. The old boundaries of workers’ consciousness quickly started to fall apart. The threat of being killed by Covid-19 at an Amazon warehouse was stronger than the fear of getting fired. And the anger of healthcare workers forced to work without PPE was louder than the voice of government officials praising them — forcing them to become martyrs. Class struggle made an impromptu entrance onto the national scene. The murder of George Floyd and the mass mobilizations that followed transformed the terrain of class struggle.

As this dual crisis was unraveling, Sanders packed in his campaign and endorsed establishment Democrat Joe Biden. Neither Sanders nor the reformist Left were prepared to respond to such a social disaster. Reformism is based on the assumption of economic growth and stability that allows for more riches to be distributed in the form of economic concessions to the working class. The incrementalism intrinsic in a reformist framework clashes with the blunt reality of cyclical crises that are intrinsic to a capitalist economy.

The DSA is a big-tent organization with various currents within it, but reformism is dominant among its leadership. The events unfolding since the beginning of 2020 bring renewed relevance to revolutionary ideas and beg for a reassessment of the Bernie turn, DSA’s relationship with the Democratic Party, and the urgent need for an independent party of the working class that fights for socialism.

Co-optation at a New Level

Sanders began his campaigns, both in 2016 and 2020, promising a “political revolution.” For many on the Left, his run inside the Democratic Party was an open challenge to the party elites and created a platform for working-class politics. Since he dropped out of the race, however, his unconditional support for Biden and his move to shut down dissent coming from his own ranks have shown that he is first and foremost committed to strengthening the Democratic Party, at the expense of any political project that could deliver transformative change.

Sanders demanded in late May that his delegates to the Democratic convention sign a pledge not to publicly criticize other Democratic candidates and party leaders. Failure to comply, the document stated, would result in disciplinary action, including the removal of the delegation. This censoring of his own supporters came when Biden was under fire not only for the rape allegation presented by Tara Reade but also for a host of blunders and reactionary remarks by Biden and his campaign: the anti-Chinese campaign ads, his deeply problematic questioning of Charlemagne Tha God’s Black identity, his endorsement of Venezuelan pro-coup leader Juan Guaidó, and more.

Sanders muzzled his own delegates to avoid criticisms of Biden and other Democratic Party leaders. This should be a wake-up call for socialists who are still convinced Bernie is leading the road to socialism.

Zoom Out

Let’s try for a moment to remember what the political climate was at the beginning of 2020, when Covid-19 had not yet hit the United States. During three years of Donald Trump in office, the Democrats, even with a brand-new left wing, proved to be completely unable (and in most cases, unwilling) to protect immigrants against an emboldened ICE, to take any decisive step toward avoiding climate catastrophe, or toward protecting labor’s rights under attack by the Trump administration. For any Left Voice reader, this is no surprise: Republicans and Democrats both serve the interests of capital. They have perfected their good cop/bad cop routine, in which one pretends to be on the side of the working class while the other is more blatantly racist and opposes the rights of workers and women. But this reality was becoming evident to more and more people, not just those consuming Marxist propaganda.

An increasing number of disaffected, mostly young people found themselves interpellated by Sanders’s bid. Not only was his message anti-establishment and generally pro-worker, but also, he had been consistent, delivering more or less the same message over the past three or four decades. The question is, then, why did he become so massively popular now? Sanders was able to compellingly articulate a social democratic program, just as he did thousands of times before. The difference is that now it converged with a widespread “left anti-establishment” sentiment, with the anger against billionaires, and with the urgency for radical change that pervades new and old generations of working-class people. What was new, in particular, is that there was a new generation of socialists.

When he announced his 2020 presidential run — actually since his 2016 campaign — we argued that although his popularity reflected deeply felt discontent with the capitalist system, the Sanders campaign had a fatal flaw: he ran as a Democrat, and as such, he pledged allegiance to the party, he built the party, he legitimized it. Vast swaths of people understandably saw a glimmer of hope in the septuagenarian from Brooklyn speaking out against big business. Some, including us, recognized his faulty record, including his support for the Iraq war and for the bombing of Kosovo, and his problematic stance on the Palestine-Israel conflict — -all facts that signaled he was no friend of the working class.

But more than anything, we pointed out that his historical role was to breathe new life into a party that was falling apart. At a time when the Democratic Party was in disarray, when increasing numbers of people were looking for radical ideas and interested in socialism, the most popular self-proclaimed “socialist” in the United States decided to run again as a Democrat. The message was clear: if you want to play politics, you have to do it inside the Democratic Party.

Zoom In

Fast-forward to June 2020: all the contradictions in our society, far from abating, have become starker with the pandemic and later the uprising after the murder of George Floyd. The Trump administration’s denial of the threat posed by Covid-19 and its disastrous response need not be repeated here. Jobs sites became breeding grounds for the virus as precarious workers, who can’t stay home even when feeling sick, went to work. The for-profit health care system, which in “normal” times leaves over 80 million people uninsured or underinsured, took the form of patients using their last few minutes of conscious life to ask who’s going to pay for the respiratory support. And for workers deemed “essential,” whether those in health care or in an Amazon warehouse, the compulsion to sell their labor or starve turned into a Faustian bargain between risking getting sick and infect their families or simply die, or quitting their job and joining the 40 million newly unemployed. Many decided to take a third path: walk out of their jobs and demand safe working conditions.

Against this grim backdrop, the atrocious killing of George Floyd was the spark that ignited the powder keg. The repeated and systematic affront in Black people’s faces, the slow but steady deterioration of workers’ lives, the increasingly blunt, inhumane exploitation of toilers across the board, in sum, the erosion of bourgeois hegemony as a consequence of the bourgeoisie’s own victories under neoliberalism, found expression in a nationwide revolt against the fist that most directly upholds this unbearable regime: the police.

Sanders’s response to the uprising against police brutality was to the left of most Democrats but still within the realm of moderate reforms. As the streets were flooded with young Black and Brown people demanding to abolish the police or completely defund it, Sanders proposed a few tweaks to reduce police force lethality and increase accountability — and as a bonus, he proposed to increase cops’ wages.

Organizer-in-Chief or Sheepdog?

In such dire times, we need bold, revolutionary politics more than ever. As this dynamic and unstable situation was unfolding, at the very peak of the pandemic, Sanders decided to drop out of the race and endorse the establishment-anointed candidate, Biden. For a minute, after the Nevada victory, it looked like Sanders was on track to win the nomination. But a swiftly orchestrated maneuver by the party establishment was enough to unite the vote against Sanders and clear the path for Biden’s victory.

A few weeks later, just as in 2016, Sanders showed loyalty to the party and endorsed his opponent, Biden, after calling him out in previous debates for being bankrolled by Wall Street. In the blink of an eye, Sanders had dropped out and was endorsing Biden on live TV. But it didn’t end there. A few days later Sanders emailed all his supporters urging them to donate to the DNC’s Democratic Unity Fund. Moreover, he ignored the calls from some of his left supporters and former campaign organizers who were demanding he turn his campaign into an organizing tool for activism around different social causes, like Medicare for All or affordable housing. He went ahead and dissolved it, leaving his campaign’s top adviser, Jeff Weaver, to form a super PAC to rally Sanders’s most active base to campaign and vote for Biden.

The truth is that Sanders is primarily committed to reinvigorating the Democratic Party, effectively blocking the emergence of a third political force to its left. At this moment, propping up the Democratic Party means strengthening the party of Jacob Frey and Tim Walz, the mayor and governor politically responsible for the murderous Minneapolis Police Department and the killing of George Floyd. It means building the party of Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio, whose response to the protests has been a ruthless crackdown, including broken skulls, arrests of healthcare workers, and systemic harassment of New Yorkers. In recent days, Sanders has even started to cozy up to Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, writing a joint statement to push Mitch McConnel to allow a vote on a new stimulus bill.

The role Sanders is now called to play for the 2020 elections is to infuse enthusiasm and young blood into Biden’s anemic campaign. The game is clear. You can almost hear Sanders telling Biden “I’ll be your left man, just give me something to show, go along with me.” The six joint policy working groups they formed at the moment Sanders endorsed Biden is an obvious example. What other purpose could these task forces have? Is Biden going to concede on Medicare for All, or any other policies that characterize Sanders’s campaign? Biden keeps repeating to this day that he opposes Medicare for All, and he isn’t budging on any other significant policy proposals, like tuition-free college, the cancellation of student debt, or the Green New Deal. Juan Domingo Perón, the bourgeois populist leader of Argentina, is credited with having said, “If you want something to get stalled, create a commission.”

The Straw That Broke the Donkey’s Back

In late May, we saw a new chapter in Sanders’s submission to the Democratic Party, when he forced his delegates to sign a pledge not to criticize Biden (or any party leader) on social media under the threat of having the delegation removed from them. The argument that Sanders was building a democratic movement falls apart in the face of this top-down disciplinary move. There is no need to repeat here how far Biden is from anything — forget socialist — resembling progressive politics. Sanders, however, manages to position himself as the advocate for radical progressive policies, like canceling student debt or Medicare for All, all the while pledging to do “everything he can” to get Biden elected.

The height of contradiction in Sanders’s politics is encapsulated in an op-ed he penned for the New York Times, in which he argues again for Medicare for All, highlighting the utmost need, underscored by the pandemic, of a comprehensive and universal health care system. A few lines later, he repeats his full support for Biden.

My insistence on breaking with Sanders might seem misplaced now, after he suspended his campaign. But if we are serious about the need for an independent working-class, socialist party, we need to be clear about Sanders’s legacy. If we keep repeating that “Sanders advanced class struggle” and helped “build a base” for the Left, with no critical appraisal of his role herding people back into the Democratic Party, we will continue to relinquish the political representation of that “base” to the Democratic Party.

Moreover, as the pressure from an emergent socialist youth increases, progressives of all shades have mushroomed in the political arena. But for socialists, elections are a means to spread a working-class program, denounce the political regime, and bring onto the agenda issues that would otherwise go unnoticed. Even though winning a seat in Congress or in a local legislature provides a platform from where to advance anti-capitalist politics, electoral campaigns must be consistent with the long-run efforts to build an organization that could bring down capitalism. This organization must have its center of gravity in class struggle, not in electoral campaigns. Progressive organizations inside the Democratic Party, such as Justice Democrats or Our Revolution, do not represent a step in the direction of building an anti-capitalist organization, but are pieces in a dam trying to contain the most left elements from exiting the Democratic Party. Since dropping out, Sanders has endorsed a host of candidates down the ballot, all of whom run inside the Democratic Party and are, willingly or not, strengthening the party by lifting the profile of its left wing.

The DSA and Bernie Sanders

Many reactions from the Left to Sanders’s defeat have been nothing short of baffling. For once, all those DSAers who argued that this was an unprecedented opportunity for socialists and went all out for Sanders (in particular, the Jacobin wing) are basically repeating the same thing now, after Sanders’s defeat, the Covid-19 pandemic, and when masses keep flooding the streets demanding radical change. What went wrong with Bernie 2020? Nothing. We are just sad that he’s gone. A “Beyond Bernie” virtual meeting organized by NYC DSA in late April featured hardcore berniecrat Meagan Day as the only speaker. When asked about the balance sheet, she — unsurprisingly — had no negative aspects to point out about the Bernie 2020 campaign and DSA’s full involvement in it.

The DSA must be credited for resisting the pressure to endorse Biden while most liberal media — and some former leftists turned liberals — accused DSAers of being “spoilers.” Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara clarified in a New York Times op-ed that the DSA is not presenting a third candidate and it is campaigning for local candidates who mostly run on a Democratic Party ballot. In fact, the DSA has ramped up its efforts for local elections, without offering a critical balance sheet of the Bernie 2020 orientation.

The NYC DSA steering committee voted in early May to reallocate resources from all branches toward electoral campaigning to make up for the canvassing the organization cannot do because of the pandemic. Concretely, this means that many branches and working groups that usually do valuable organizing unrelated to elections — like labor activists who put together the Emergency Workers’ Organizing Committee — were asked to devote time and resources to trying to get these Democratic candidates elected.

No serious critical balance has been drawn of the Sanders campaign by the organization. But there are lessons to draw from this experience. For the second time in four years, Sanders campaigned on a very progressive platform, drawing hundreds of thousands or even millions into the Democratic party, only to be defeated by the party establishment and to endorse the moderate candidate.

The Mechanics of Co-optation

Co-optation always involves concessions from the people or structures of power in order to channel a potentially disruptive movement into institutional settings. In any political regime, the state cannot operate only through coercion. There needs to be some consent in the social pact if the rulers would like to avoid rebellions every other year. This is Gramsci at his most basic. The task of brokering these new social compacts and bringing matters back to “normalcy” falls on state managers (government officials) — capitalists only busy themselves with making more money, no matter the (social) cost.

Over the almost five decades of neoliberalism, Republicans and Democrats alike have bent the stick too much in the direction of increasing capitalist profits, lowering working people’s standards of living, or, in other words, as representatives in power of the capitalist class, conceding too little. This neglect of the “consent” side of politics has deep consequences. The “losers of neoliberalism” turned their backs on establishment politicians and, since 2016, have been looking for alternatives to politics as usual. This is reflected, among other things, in an increasing pressure from the Left to desert the Democratic Party in the search of more radical platforms. This same dynamic underlies the dramatic growth of the DSA, which has now hit the 70,000-members mark.

The point is that, when you think of it that way, it becomes evident that the growth of a socialist movement that challenges the two-party system in the United States was a natural consequence of recent political developments. The more state managers open the doors of the henhouse to the capitalist foxes, the more the legitimacy of the regime’s institutions dissolves — and this includes the party system. Sanders, regardless of his intentions, has already twice played the role of the outsider pushing a radical agenda, defying party politicos, but ultimately capitulating to the Democratic establishment.

The pandemic has pushed a layer of the most combative workers to step up, organize, and fight back. Similarly, the protests against racist police brutality are radicalizing a new sector of the youth who are ready to fight the regime. Only a Left that is politically independent and bold enough to indict the political regime at its core will be able to converge with these fighting sectors. If the socialist movement converges with the movement against racist police brutality, the consequences could be explosive.

Elections and the Fight for Socialism

Electoral campaigns are not intrinsically detrimental for socialists. Many socialists in and outside the DSA, rightfully frustrated with the monopolizing and ultimately failed character of the Sanders campaign, have come to the conclusion that elections always lead to a strengthening of the bourgeois rule. The only activity that is worth engaging in is organizing in our neighborhoods and at workplaces, creating communities among ourselves or openly disrupting the economy. All this is good, and these efforts can go a long way in generating working-class consciousness and building strong ties among working-class people. But there needs to be a long-term goal of the working class taking power. With this goal in mind, electoral campaigns can help build a working-class identity, spread revolutionary politics, advance radical slogans that undermine the state’s legitimacy, and make strides in building a political party that, in a revolutionary situation, will be able to lead the masses of workers to power. All this, however, requires political independence from the beginning. A campaign inside the Democratic Party, by its very nature, cannot accomplish any of these goals.

The stubborn continuation of (or even deepening) of electoralism without class independence is even more problematic in times of the pandemic, in the midst of an uprising against racist police brutality. At a moment when socialists are needed most on the front lines of class struggle, when workers and people of color are standing up to defend their lives, building links of solidarity across sectors and fighting together for their common good, there is an urgent need for two interrelated actions that only socialist can do. On the one hand, participating in those struggles, organizing coworkers, fighting together with workers in other sectors, mobilizing as a socialist organization in the streets for Black lives, and pushing the labor movement to take action against police terror. On the other hand, we need those in the struggle to believe in their own strength, trust their own forces and realize that they can build their own political tool. A new party is needed that represents workers and fights racist oppression from a working-class perspective, one that is not thoroughly dominated by its capitalists financiers; one that unapologetically fights for socialism. That is the first task for socialists in the United States today, and Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party are standing in our way.

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