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Sanders, the Left and the American Elections

The unexpected success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign has thrust a self-proclaimed socialist into the national spotlight and sparked a debate among substantial sectors of the American left.

Ian Steinman

September 30, 2015
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In the aftermath of movements like Occupy Wall Street his promise to take on the ”Billionaire Class” has resonated strongly with a wide section of the Democratic Party base and drawn fervent crowds to rallies around the United States.

That Sanders’ socialist label hasn’t undermined him is a clear sign that the firm tradition of American Cold War anti-communism is finally meeting its long overdue death. When the far right has attempted to characterize even the innocuously pro-capitalist policies of Obama as socialism, the word has been drained of its scare factor. Yet despite his verbal commitment to socialism in a European, social-democratic tradition, Sanders’ policies are not particularly radical.

What Sanders Defends

He wants to raise the minimum wage, implement a national healthcare system and invest heavily in infrastructure and education. His most radical proposal is to break up the major banks, reducing any company that is ”too big to fail” to a size where the government could hopefully ignore it. He has positioned himself in favor of legalization for undocumented workers. He has also taken a firm stance against the maintenance and expansion of free trade agreements like NAFTA, favoring instead a return to a more protectionist US economic policy.

Sanders’ actual platform on a historical scale is radical only by the standards of a post-DLC Democratic Party. Things like the repeal of Taft-Hartley, a Guaranteed National Income and the elimination of unemployment through economic planning were once part of mainstream political discussion and make today’s socialist Sanders look positively conservative by comparison. He is to the left of Obama, but not much to the left of many pre-Carter Democratic Party candidates.

On foreign affairs, there is little to admire in Sanders’ conception of internationalism. Sanders condemned the military adventure in Iraq, but supported NATO intervention in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. He would undoubtedly represent a shift towards a more collaborative military policy less willing to commit ground forces; yet this hardly places him outside the mainstream of US foreign policy. He has firmly supported Israel in its numerous massacres of Palestinian civilians and says he would maintain the US Drone program. He is against the “excesses” of the War on Terror but makes no pretenses of standing against US intervention abroad.

What Sanders is offering is not socialism, but instead a return to the old liberal program that the Democratic Party once stood for. It’s a recipe that much of the base of the Democratic Party wishes for, one that has inspired a new generation of highly indebted college students. Yet is this mix of progressive economic reform and capitalist growth a realistic possibility at the present conjuncture?

Reform and Contemporary Capitalism

Previous cycles of victorious reforms like those passed under traditional liberal governments were conditioned by the domestic and international strength of the working class – as represented by the power of unions and the international threat of the Soviet Union. The Cold War made it necessary for governments to at least appear to provide better standards of living for workers under the leading imperialist regimes than that which a bureaucratically strangled Soviet economy could. In the post war period the advanced capitalist states were also able to produce economic growth at an astonishingly high rate – in which Capital could afford to accept concessions to labor since those concessions were small compared to the overall growth of profits.

The collapse of the Keynesian consensus and the turn towards neoliberal economic policy in the late 70s ushered in a drastic change in US economic policy in response to declining rates of growth. The economic turn towards neo-liberalism came with a corresponding shift in political power. The AFL-CIO bureaucracy fell from its role as the ”kingmaker” within the Democratic Party in the late 60s and early 70s to that of an afterthought. Through decades of attacks on workers and social services capitalist profitability and growth rates were restored (albeit at an ever declining rate). Deregulation opened new, riskier and high return investments, which temporarily propelled economic growth at the cost of more frequent and deeper crisis — culminating with the crash and bailout of 2008.

The recent ”market correction” which saw the stock market drop substantially in response to China’s deep financial crisis has painfully underscored the low levels of growth which the United States and developed capitalist world have relied upon since the larger 2008 crisis and bailout. Extremely favorable terms of lending from the Federal Reserve and historically low oil prices have failed to bring any relief to the long-term economic stagnation of the advanced capitalist world.

In this context, Sanders’ commitment to the Democratic Party and American capitalism amounts to a pre-signed declaration of surrender. More likely than not that surrender will be issued within the Democratic Primary when he endorses Hillary Clinton – yet even were he to overcome the odds and succeed, he could not deliver on the hopes of his supporters.

Capital concedes nothing without a threat: a threat to profits, a threat of disruption, a threat of expropriation. Our capacity to win reform is at every moment conditioned by our ability to threaten capital and the governability of the capitalist state. Only an uncompromising and unconditional struggle can wrest victories from the avaricious grasp of the American bourgeoisie.

Sanders, for all his relatively progressive demands, has renounced in advance precisely that unconditional struggle which is most essential to winning even basic reforms under capitalism.

The Left on Sanders

The campaign Sanders has built has succeeded in mobilizing huge crowds – as many as a hundred thousand have already attended rallies around the United States. His message opposing income inequality and corporate power has struck a chord with millions who are looking to fight back against the bleak prospects of austerity. For the revolutionary left it is important to find a way to connect with and help to channel this energy at the same time we maintain our substantial criticisms of his campaign.

For this purpose it is helpful to examine the positions of two of the more influential organizations of the American left, Socialist Alternative (SA) and the International Socialist Organization (ISO).

Socialist Alternative – the party of Kshama Sawant and the US branch of the Committee for a Workers’ International – has basically endorsed the Sanders campaign. They argue that he should run as an independent if defeated in the primary, yet make no criticisms of the content of his campaign. In their statement they declare that:

”Sanders’ campaign, like Occupy before it, can be an important step to getting organized for fundamental change. To win this election, much less fundamental change, the movement behind Sanders will need to rely on its own strength and build an independent political force to the corporate-controlled Democratic Party establishment.”

Socialist Alternative is counting on Sanders being blocked in the primaries (a fairly safe gamble right now) but otherwise endorses his campaign. In the unlikely event he were to win the primary, it would be consistent with their position to support him. They go on in their statement to argue that the Democratic leadership would resist his victory sufficiently that it would require a movement equivalent to a break from the Democratic Party to make him the candidate of the Democratic Party.

The argument that placing Sanders on the democratic ticket would mean a break from the Democratic Party is not very convincing – if he won, it is far more likely that a victorious Sanders would moderate the most radical elements of his platform in exchange for official approval and support.

Socialist Alternative is betting that Sanders will lose the primary and attempting to position itself as close to his supporters as possible to try to win some of them to independent politics after his defeat. Yet their strategy is fundamentally an opportunist one: they don’t even raise the political differences between revolutionary socialism and Sanders’ platform. To win over those to our right we have to explain where we stand. A false and superficial unity may help win a few votes, but cannot set the foundation for a lasting movement.

The International Socialist Organization, in contrast, centers the core of their critique of Sanders on the historical role of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements and has played a central role in co-opting the left rather than being in any way changed by it. However the framework of the ISO’s critique begs the question, if he were running as an independent, what then? For the ISO, the central task of the left in American electoral politics is to break the working class and social movements from the poisonous influence of the Democratic Party; This is a necessary starting point, but what are we winning people over to? A more radical reformism that will genuinely attempt to pass progressive reforms? This is in practice what the ISO has promoted as an alternative by running candidates through the Green Party and endorsing previous Green Party campaigns like Nader’s.

The strategy that underpins this approach is in fact incapable of achieving the goal it sets out for itself. Political independence from the Democrats cannot advance unless class independence is at the foundation of any alternative political project. The Marxist analysis of the role of the Democratic Party is fundamentally linked to our conception of the DP as a capitalist party which rules and manages within the framework of the capitalist state in the interests of the capitalist class.

The Green Party is neither anti-capitalist nor a workers´ party. It offers a program of utopian liberalism as a left pressure on the Democrats nationally and in local elections, where victorious, candidates have offered little to inspire confidence.

Capitalist Parties Are No Alternative

To call the Green Party a capitalist party may come as a surprise to many. After all, you will have a hard time finding many CEOs among its ranks. Yet its program, aims and strategy offer no alternative to a system based fundamentally on exploitation.

As a party it is not so much a real alternative of liberal capitalism as it is the shadow of liberalism. It represents the unfulfilled promise set forth by a previous and now dead epoch of capitalist development. It finds no support among the capitalist class, but instead bases itself on radical NGOs, lefty lawyers/professionals and some small businesses.

Its program of a “green new deal” powered by state investment alongside advances in workers wages and civil rights cannot be achieved under the conditions of contemporary American capitalism. If it could be, it would be precisely the last alternative of the capitalist class in the face of massive social upheavals. For socialists participating in the party the idea of advancing liberal demands which go beyond what capitalism can really sustain may appear almost like the strategy behind Trotsky’s classical conception of Transitional Demands – however there are clear and vital differences.

For Trotsky, the demands are advanced by a revolutionary working class party and used to launch a revolution – to expose and set forth what capitalism cannot achieve or sustain and in so doing, advance a revolutionary perspective among the masses. For the Green Party, these demands are the aim in and of themselves, and insofar as they are unachievable, they exist and are used just as many utopias were historically – as a left pressure on the existing order.

At the national scale and in many larger elections, Green Party campaigns are essentially propaganda campaigns: opportunities to put forward alternative ideas to the two-party consensus. Voting for the Green Party is done by many precisely to express discontent with the Democrats and is done with the aim of forcing the Democratic Party to tack left. This is a substantial reason behind why, for example, the Green Party entered a deep crisis in 2004 under extreme pressure to support Kerry against Bush. Principled socialists with an anti-capitalist view of course stood for independence – yet the “principled” liberals of the Green Party were eager not to abandon their real aim.

However, small the Green Party’s national influence and vote, its strength is if anything exaggerated by the peculiarities of the US electoral system – which make it possible for a minority of voters to support a third party without threatening the electoral prospects of the Democratic candidate if they live in a state like California. Local victories, like that of San Francisco’s Sheriff have proven to be nothing worth defending by socialists.

The great strategist and arch-reactionary Bismarck once remarked that every alliance consists of two parts, a horse and a rider. Burying itself in coalitions to the right of its own politics in search of an illusory radical reformism, much of the contemporary US and European left finds itself wandering deserted fields and – when more often than not finding them empty – settling with placing a hastily constructed scarecrow upon its back. The time and effort would be far better used projecting our own politics in defense of an independent, explicitly socialist alternative.

The Politics We Need

The success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign demonstrates the depth of popular discontent with the war being waged against working people. The left must patiently explain our differences with Sanders at the same time we seek to take advantage of the political opening created by his campaign. There is an opportunity to draw those inspired by Sanders’ reformist promises into the struggle for workers, social and civil rights – an experience from which many can emerge with a far more radical consciousness. Sanders may have commitments to the Democratic Party and capitalism – but the working people supporting him can be won to a far more intransigent defense of their rights.

Neither Bernie Sanders nor the Green Party will provide a path towards the independent working class political alternative we need. While we may have differences with Socialist Alternative, the success of Kshama Sawant´s campaign demonstrates that it is possible to run openly as independent, principled socialists. It also shows that participation in elections and victories within them can give us a powerful position from which to advocate for workers’ causes.

The Left and Workers Front (FIT) in Argentina provides one important example of what is possible when the socialist left comes together around a principled program of workers’ independence. There is neither need nor justification for revolutionary Marxists to hide a revolutionary socialist perspective beneath the facade of a corporate democratic party, green party liberalism or “anti-austerity” fronts. Our ideas, politics and strategy – the principled stand for workers’ self-emancipation and socialism – are of vital importance to arm the working class against the assaults of capital. Only a stand for working-class independence can advance the unconditional struggle, which our side needs to fight back against a decadent and inhuman system.

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