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Jacobin Blames Campaign Worker Organizing for Sanders’ 2020 Loss

Jacobin Magazine recently published an article blaming Bernie Sanders’ loss on his campaign staff organizing for better working conditions. This article is but the latest example of Jacobin making apologies for bourgeois candidates instead of re-examining their strategy.

Ezra Brain

June 18, 2021
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It is no secret that Jacobin Magazine has a different strategy for winning socialism than Left Voice. We’ve written many articles offering up our differences and political critiques of their politics. In general, Jacobin and their political allies within the DSA leadership subscribe to an electoral strategy — sometimes referred to as the “Democratic Path to Socialism” — built on the idea that it is possible to win socialism at the ballot box without a revolution or armed struggle. This strategy has a long theoretical history and an equally long series of defeats and betrayals. 

In the case of Jacobin, this strategy has led them to support the Democratic Party on several occasions. Jacobin’s editorial line has long been that working within the Democratic Party is a necessary element, in the current juncture, of winning socialism. We have frequently criticized this line as being an adaptation to the capitalist order that builds illusions in bourgeois institutions and distracts working people from the need for independent forms of organization.

However, in one of their most recent articles — the provocatively titled “Not All Labor Actions Aid the Working Class” Jacobin writer Ben Burgis takes this strategy of defending Democrats as the best hope of working people to its logical conclusion and blames the staffers and volunteers of “progressive” Democratic campaigns for holding back the emancipation of the working class.

Diane Morales, Bernie Sanders, and Other Exploitative Bosses

Burgis begins the article by discussing the recent crisis in the campaign of NYC mayoral candidate Diane Morales. Morales, a self-described  progressive, has been lambasted by the press following a series of conflicts with her staff, who allege that they have been mistreated, overworked, underpaid, and harassed during the campaign. In response to these workplace issues, the staffers tried to form a union, a struggle that ended when Morales fired many of the key organizers. This is union busting and surely has no place in any progressive campaign. 

Burgis then takes the very bizarre position of both arguing that Morales is an indefensible candidate, a false progressive who would not have made good on her progressive campaign promises, while also defending her against her staff. To quote an early section of the article:

But let’s assume her politics are as good as the staffers and volunteers who back her think. If the Morales campaign really had been the best vehicle for achieving desperately needed reforms, would shutting that campaign down a few weeks before the primary have been a good idea? It’s hard to make sense of the views of the staffers who apparently believed both of those things.

Surely many of us have taken jobs that we assumed would be great with bosses whom we liked that quickly turned into a nightmare situation as soon as we started working there. If a candidate is making a big deal about her support of working people and then abuses her workers and busts their attempts to form a union,  then she doesn’t actually support working people. So, then, Morales isn’t as progressive as her staffers may have thought. In fact, her behavior as a boss explicitly disproves that she is “the best vehicle for achieving desperately needed reforms.” A campaign that doesn’t believe in workers’ rights won’t turn into an administration that believes in workers’ rights.  

Taking this argument a step further, Burgis appears to be arguing that if you support a candidate politically at one moment, then no matter what they do, you must always continue to support them. While this might not be very surprising for a high-profile supporter of Bernie Sanders, it is disconcerting that a writer for a nominally left-wing publication would make such claims, and it is completely inexcusable that the Jacobin editors would publish them. It is a very short walk from Burgis’s logic to that of an  unethical campaign manager telling volunteers not to, say,  speak out against an assault they experienced because it would harm the campaign. Abuse of staffers and volunteers can and does happen, even in supposedly progressive campaigns. Our response to this can’t be telling the workers that they should stay quiet so as not to disrupt the political aspirations of their leader.

Moving past Burgis’ attacks on Morales teenage volunteers — a section of the article so uncomradely that it makes you wonder who, exactly, is editing these Jacobin pieces — Burgis goes on to write about the “Bullet Bernie Dodged in Iowa.” Essentially, new reports have come out that some members of the Sanders staff in Iowa during the 2020 primaries were unhappy with their working conditions, pay, and the absence of time off. There were disputes between the staffers and management that ended up being resolved by the staffers’ union.

Burgis uses this example to begin laying out his larger point which is, essentially, that workers on “leftist” campaigns don’t have the right to fight for their demands. To use his words:

Being a campaign staffer on an insurgent leftist campaign just isn’t an ordinary job. The purpose of the campaign isn’t to make more money for a corporate overlord — it’s to elect someone like Bernie Sanders who has pledged to fight those corporate overlords.

Most such jobs are over in months or even weeks. When insurgent electoral campaigns and other forms of social movement organizing have the potential to improve the conditions of the working class as a whole, it’s hard to justify a political calculus that subordinates these efforts’ success to staff making demands of the campaign like any group of workers would against a capitalist boss.

There is, of course, a lot to unpack in this statement, but, most importantly, it reveals the fundamental contradiction of Burgis’ argument: that he refuses to acknowledge that a true “insurgent leftist campaign” wouldn’t treat it’s staffers in this way to begin with. True left-wing electoral campaigns are democratically organized with supporters who have a say in what is going on with the campaign. That this isn’t the case with the campaigns of progressive Democrats says more about the class nature of these Democratic campaigns than it does about the workers. 

Given this contradiction, Burgis’ argument is self-defeating. It is indeed “hard to justify a political calculus that subordinates these efforts’ success to staff making demands of the campaign like any group of workers would against a capitalist boss” because that isn’t the political calculus that is being made. Rather, these workers are arguing that the way these candidates run their campaign shows them to be not that different from a “capitalist boss.” Given this similarity, we shouldn’t support them because they are trying to co-opt our radical energy into something that isn’t fundamentally different from what we are fighting against. The fact that the working class staffers of these campaigns can realize this but a Jacobin writer can’t says a lot about the theoretical hoops that the intelligentsia of reformism are more than willing to jump through to justify their support for bourgeois politicians. 

Blaming Workers as a Substitute for a Balance Sheet

Burgis goes on to almost explicitly blame the workers of the Sanders campaign for the failure of the campaign. He writes:

But dilemmas are created when militant efforts to advance those limited interests [of campaign staffers’ could have real costs for broader working-class interests. If the fig leaf of Mayor Pete’s lead in “state delegate equivalents” hadn’t been available to the media as a way of declaring him the winner of the caucus, would this extra bit of momentum have made a difference later in the campaign? Maybe not. Perhaps Sanders would have been decisively defeated in South Carolina no matter what happened in the earlier states, and in this alternate timeline, Joe Biden still would have won. We’ll never know.

What we can be almost certain of is that, if there had been a strike in Iowa, or if the staffers had even made the contemplated public denunciation a week before the caucus, the Sanders campaign would have ended long before it did in our timeline. That would have also meant an earlier and more decisive end to any prospect for a Sanders presidency, and hence the best possible short-term boost for the movements for Medicare for All, a national living wage, a Green New Deal that would have created many millions of good union jobs, and more pro-worker labor laws throughout American society.

So, if you’re following along at home, the reason Sanders isn’t the president isn’t due to failures in his strategy or the balance of forces within the Democratic Party, but instead because these selfish campaign staffers demanded that they be allowed some time off. This is a completely apolitical analysis of the failures of the Sanders campaign.

This half-baked blame game in lieu of argument is especially egregious given that he offers no balance sheet of the Sanders campaign other than blaming the workers. He doesn’t say one word about how Sanders might have run his campaign differently, and he hasn’t written a single article for Jacobin where he offers a critical balance sheet of Bernie 2020. Jacobin’s one big hope was Bernie 2020, and when it failed, they offered nothing in the way of criticism of that strategy. And now they are publishing articles that implicitly blame Bernie’s staffers for his failure. 

Burgis’s article and Jacobin are making the case for uncritically running more bourgeois candidates in the future. Burgis and his allies in the reformist wing of the organized Left understand that the crisis of Morales in NYC and Sanders in Iowa are only a prologue of what is to come. We have often written about how class-collaboration leads leftists to begin to betray their principles, and in Burgis, we have as clear an example as any. A prestigious member of the academic Left wrote an article defending bosses against workers. And then the biggest publication on the U.S. Left published it. 

As this strategy continues, these compromises are happening more and more often, and they will only lead to more defeats, betrayals, and demoralization. We don’t have to jump through hoops to excuse workplace mistreatment of workers by their bourgeois bosses. We don’t have to forgive the unforgivable just because we want one specific candidate to win. We don’t have to subscribe to the disempowering and compromising strategy of a legislative path to socialism. Rather, we can take our inspiration from Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, and the other greats of the socialist movement and organize along class independent lines. We can run true working class candidates who are accountable to their supporters and who won’t have to make apologies for mistreating their staff. We don’t have to write articles attacking teenage volunteers to defend our candidates. We can just run actual left-wing candidates on our own ballot line. 

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Ezra Brain

Ezra is a NYC based theatre artist and teacher.

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