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Sanders, a Third Party, or a Working Class Party?

Without a doubt, the Bernie Sanders phenomenon offers new opportunities as well as potential pitfalls for the left in the U.S. We intend to discuss the positions of various socialist left parties vis-à-vis the presidential elections and the Sanders candidacy in the coming weeks and months. In our first article in this series, we will examine the position of Socialist Alternative, which made a major statement in 2013 by winning a seat on the Seattle city council, the biggest electoral victory by any socialist group in decades.

Robert Belano

April 2, 2016
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In January, Socialist Alternative launched its Movement4Bernie , a full-scale campaign for Sanders, with marches, fundraisers, and local chapters. The group maintains that Sanders should run as an independent outside of the Democratic Party. Still, the group would “welcome it if Bernie Sanders were to win the Democratic nomination” and urges its members to vote for Sanders wherever state primaries allow them to do so.

Given Socialist Alternative’s success in the Seattle city council race in 2013 and 2015 opposing the Democrats each time, it is surprising that the group has now decided to back a candidate of the very party they correctly denounce as one of the two “parties of big business”. While Sanders may be outside the Democratic Party’s traditional establishment and has rejected corporate contributions, his candidacy is squarely aimed at corralling youth and workers back into a party which is fundamentally opposed to their interests. Sanders has already declared he will vote for Clinton if she wins the party’s nomination —all but assured at this stage— and that he will call on his supporters to do the same.

An historic opportunity

Kshama Sawant’s election in 2013 to the Seattle city council was one of the biggest victories for socialists in the U.S. in decades. Before Bernie Sanders was a household name, Sawant ran representing an openly socialist party against the Democrats and won nearly 80,000 votes. Her platform was based on the demand for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, dismissed by the corporate media as a pipe dream at the time but set to become a reality in Seattle in 2017. In 2015, she defeated the Democratic Party challenger again , proving her win two years earlier was no fluke. Despite our political differences with Socialist Alternative, Sawant’s election was a major victory for workers and youth and a big blow to Seattle’s Democratic Party machine and its big business backers.

Why then has Socialist Alternative turned away from the strategy of building a working class party and instead thrown its support behind the Bernie Sanders candidacy in the Democratic primaries?

There is no doubt that the Sanders candidacy has captured the attention of millions of young people, despite the opposition of the entire party establishment, a lack of support from nearly all the union bureaucracies, and the undemocratic rules of the primary system. The platforms of his campaign, from a national $15-an-hour minimum wage, to free public higher education, to free universal health care, echo the demands of important social movements like the fast food workers’ struggle and the Occupy movement.

It is essential for the U.S. left to begin to engage with the tens of thousands of youth and workers who today place their hopes in Bernie Sanders and to patiently explain the need to build a working class alternative to the Democratic Party. These youth and workers, many of whom are calling themselves socialists for the first time in their lives, will play an indispensible role in the building of such a party, as will the youth who have participated in the struggles for black and immigrant liberation and Occupy.

However, Sanders is no socialist. What Sanders represents is social democracy; he might seek to grant a few concessions to workers and poor people, but above all acts as a brake on the workers’ and popular movements that have erupted in recent years (Black Lives Matter, Occupy, the fast food workers’ struggle). Sanders has made clear he has no intentions to nationalize any industries or expropriate any capitalists. He plans to break up the big banks, but keep the new smaller banks in the hands of millionaires and billionaires. He has not put forward any plan to close U.S. military bases abroad. In fact, he does not even support withdrawing troops from Afghanistan or ending U.S. funding for Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Socialist Alternative concedes that “Sanders limits himself to a program of reforming capitalism along the lines of Western Europe” but does not consider that reformist perspective to be an impediment to their support.

This logic was taken to its conclusions during the most recent elections in Seattle, when Socialist Alternative publicly endorsed several Democrats in city council races, with the slogan “Kick Out the Conservative Majority!” The slippery slope of critical support for Sanders has led to openly backing candidates from one of the two parties of Wall Street.

The dead end of reformism

One needs only to look at the recent record of the European reformist parties, both the traditional social democratic parties now governing in France and Italy and the new reformist coalitions such as Syriza in Greece, to understand the failure of the reformist strategy.

In France, the Socialist Party government of Francois Hollande has maintained a four-month-long state of emergency in which hundreds of innocent Muslims have been placed under house arrest and surveillance has been massively expanded. At the same time Hollande is now attempting to gut worker protections through “reform” of the labor code. In Italy, the social-democratic president Renzi has frozen salaries, cut pensions, and implemented new labor flexibility laws.

And in Greece, the left-reformist Syriza government has completely capitulated to German imperialism and the international financial institutions, selling off state assets — including 14 airports — to German capital, and is forcing new structural adjustment programs down the throats of the Greek people. These are measures which could never have been achieved by the neoliberal parties.

Do these European reformist projects represent the interests of the working class or the capitalist class? We don’t need to think too long about the answer.

Another way forward for the left

Only a revolutionary and independent working class party can achieve the overthrow of capitalism. Socialist Alternative cannot, of course, play that role alone today. Nor can any existing socialist group in the U.S. But if the groups of the socialist left — Socialist Alternative, the ISO, Solidarity, Socialist Action, etc. — did run a campaign based on the principle of class independence, it could be an important first step in building the party we need. That candidate would obviously have no chance at winning the elections. But such a candidate could raise demands that no other candidate, including Bernie Sanders, has raised in these elections so far: an end to all U.S. military interventions abroad, immediate citizenship rights for all immigrants, for the nationalization of the banks and foreign trade under worker and popular control, and for the police out of Black and Latino communities.

That candidate would not limit him or herself to campaign speechifying, but would actively support and take part in strikes, protests, and other workers’ struggles. This is the type of candidacy that would attract the most politically advanced workers and oppressed people and lay the foundations for the construction of a revolutionary class-struggle party.

In Argentina, we have witnessed a powerful example in the Left and Workers’ Front (FIT), an electoral alliance of three revolutionary working-class organizations — the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas, the Partido Obrero and Izquierda Socialista. The organizations which form the FIT have put forward a common platform based on class independence, anti-imperialism, and a rejection of all collaboration with capitalist parties. Together they have raised the demands for a minimum wage equal to the cost of living, an end to layoffs and outsourcing, for the nonpayment of the external debt, and the re-nationalization of all privatized utilities under worker and consumer control, among other demands.

In the last elections, hundreds of workers stood as candidates for the FIT — workers who led rank-and-file battles in Argentina’s most important episodes of class struggle in recent years. Above all, the FIT emphasizes the primary role of the mobilization and organization of the working class united with the oppressed as the main force behind a revolutionary movement for socialism. While still far from a mass workers party, the FIT earned over 3% of the vote nationally in 2015.

Independent of the Democrats vs. independent of the capitalist class

We must stress that an independent working class candidacy cannot simply be independent of the Democrats — such as the Green Party, figures like Ralph Nader, or even Sanders himself (pre-2015) — but must maintain class independence. That is to say, a party with no participation from the capitalists and which clearly fights for working class objectives.

Socialist Alternative says it was a mistake for Sanders to join the Democratic Party and that he should run as an independent — a position held more or less by the ISO and Solidarity. This demand not only ignores the fact that Sanders has been a de-facto Democrat for years — voting with Democrats in the Senate 98% of the time and receiving tens of thousands in campaign contributions from groups like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — but also fails to make any class distinctions. The point is not simply that we need a party independent of the two mainstream parties, but that we need a party independent of the entire capitalist class.

While it may be true that the Green Party does not count on the massive support of individual capitalists, its program remains a bourgeois program. It seeks “sustainable capitalism,” as if such a thing were possible. The capitalist class cannot be convinced to sacrifice its profits for the sake of the environment or workers’ well being. The only sustainable path — if by “sustainable” we mean the prevention of environmental ruin and an end to interminable war and widespread poverty — is socialism.

Instead of modeling our party after the failed European reformist projects, let us look to the revolutionary experience of the Bolsheviks — an independent working class party that seized power, ended Russia’s involvement in the imperialist war, wrested control of industry from the capitalists, and began to build a new society based not on oppression and exploitation but on mutual aid and solidarity. That Stalinist degeneration set in motion a process of reversing the gains of the Soviet workers does not make the Bolshevik program any less correct.

We on the left should seriously reflect on dangers posed by a campaign for Sanders and consider the opportunity at hand to build upon the victory of Kshama Sawant in Seattle and run an independent class-conscious presidential campaign. It would be a powerful example not seen in the U.S. in decades and could be the start of a true anti-capitalist struggle.

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Robert Belano

Robert Belano is a writer and editor for Left Voice. He lives in the Washington, DC area.

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