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Time for a Balance Sheet of the Sanders Campaign

Tens of thousands of socialists supported Bernie Sanders campaign. Now that Sanders has endorsed Joe Biden, it is time to draw the lessons. Rosa Luxemburg provides some insights.

Nathaniel Flakin

April 16, 2020
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Elise Swain/The Intercept

History is moving faster. Super Tuesday — when Joe Biden won 10 state primaries and secured the Democratic Party’s nomination — feels like a different era. In reality, it was only six weeks ago!

The following day, Jacobin magazine assured its readers that Bernie Sanders can still win. That was the hope of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of socialists in the United States.

But now Sanders has put his political capital and his organizational infrastructure in the service of the Democratic Party and Joe Biden, an establishment politician with a long history of serving capital with racist, imperialist, and neoliberal policies.

Sanders himself declared “ideological victory” in his concession speech, but in reality he has only lent progressive credentials to a candidate who is just as decrepit as the bourgeois party he represents.

Time for a Balance Sheet

The biggest socialist campaign in the United States in decades has now ended. Bernie Sanders raised $180 million. He had so many volunteers in Iowa that they ran out of potential voters to talk to. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which in the last few years has grown into the largest socialist organization in the United States, provided tens of thousands of volunteers nationwide.

The world has changed tremendously in the weeks since Super Tuesday. Workers across the country are facing horrific scenarios, and in different places they are gathering first experiences with their collective strength. As global capitalism slides into a new crisis, we must ask ourselves what the Sanders campaign left behind. 

On the one hand, the leaders, the “democratic socialists” with seats in the halls of power such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are beginning to campaign for the Democratic Party’s official candidate. It is true that they have made some progressive proposals — but nothing close to the emergency program that workers need to stop all nonessential production, nationalize healthcare, and convert industry to fighting the pandemic. In fact, Sanders, despite some criticisms, voted for the $2 trillion bailout designed to save the banks and big corporations.

On the other hand, we see new people signing up for the DSA, and many people who campaigned for Sanders looking for ways to continue their activism. There are examples of people who first became active in the Sanders campaign and are now helping organize rent strikes, supporting healthcare workers in their struggle for protective gear, and participating in wildcat strikes across the country.

That’s good. But if the Sanders campaign demonstrated anything, it was its inability to put a progressive in charge of the world’s most rapacious imperialist state. Supporters of that strategy had been encouraging working people to trust in the blatantly undemocratic institutions of bourgeois democracy. The Sanders campaign was destined to fail: those institutions provided exactly the result they were intended to provide.

Clearly, socialists need a different strategy. What should it look like? Should we put our hopes in AOC in 2024? As Politico reported, the “democratic socialist” is cozying up to the Democratic establishment and has been distancing herself from more progressive primary candidates. AOC has been so successful within a bourgeois party because she has understood how to put on an oppositional face while making deals with the leaders of the capitalist regime.

Echoes of Kautsky

The DSA’s leadership majority, tied to Jacobin magazine, has long defended a strategy of working within the Democratic Party, with the perspective of making a so-called “dirty breaksome day in the distant future. They trace their ideas back to Karl Kautsky, and if readers will bear with an historical detour, there is certainly an analogy to be drawn here.

Kautsky, the theoretician of Germany’s Social Democrats before World War I, attempted to strike a balance between the reformism of the party’s right wing and the revolutionary Marxism of its left. He talked about the need for revolution — but only after a socialist party had won 50 percent of votes plus one. Kautsky’s center wing would thus waver between revolutionary words and reformist practice.

When World War I broke out, the right wing of the Social Democratic parties throughout Europe supported their governments, while the left attempted to fight against the war with revolutionary means. Kautsky’s centrists again wavered: lamenting that the war interrupted their gradualist strategy, they neither supported nor opposed the war, but instead hoped it would end soon so they could get back to their old “proven tactics.”

Rosa Luxemburg, the revolutionary leader trapped in prison because of her opposition to the war, mocked this idea:

One thing is certain. The world war is a turning point. It is foolish and mad to imagine that we need only survive the war, like a rabbit waiting out the storm under a bush, in order to fall happily back into the old routine once it is over. The world war has altered the conditions of our struggle and, most of all, it has changed us. Not that the basic law of capitalist development, the life-and-death war between capital and labor, will experience any amelioration. But now, in the midst of the war, the masks are falling and the old familiar visages smirk at us. The tempo of development has received a mighty jolt from the eruption of the volcano of imperialism. The violence of the conflicts in the bosom of society, the enormousness of the tasks that tower up before the socialist proletariat — these make everything that has transpired in the history of the workers’ movement seem a pleasant idyll.

We see this rabbit-like hope in the thinking of today’s neo-Kautskyites as well. As the economy collapses, with 16 million unemployment claims in three weeks, Connor Kilpatrick strikes a confident tone. The Jacobin author, in his postmortem of the Sanders campaign, assures us that we just need a few more decades of patient work inside the Democratic Party: “I’d say we’re looking at no more than twenty or thirty years max for a decent social-democratic project to truly take hold of American life.”

It would be hard to find a bourgeois economist at the moment claiming that capitalism will offer us two or three years of peaceful development, let alone 20 to 30. Instead, we will see economic crises, increasing rivalries between the Great Powers, and worsening environmental catastrophes due to climate change. Could it really be that these social democrats are more confident than anyone in the system’s stability? When Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara sketched out a vision for how America could develop toward socialism from 2018 to 2038, what was striking was the idea that capitalism could develop for 20 years uninterrupted by crises.

When the German social democrat Eduard Bernstein first presented a systematic theory of reformism, he based his peaceful, gradualist strategy on the idea that capitalism was no longer the crisis-ridden system Karl Marx had analyzed. The development of trusts, the credit system, and the middle classes, in Bernstein’s view, would regulate the anarchy of capitalism and allow the system to overcome its crises. Luxemburg demolished this rosy view in her 1900 pamphlet Reform or Revolution, showing how capitalism was only preparing greater crises — and she was proven right when World War I erupted. For Bernstein, it took 15 years before his illusions were shattered by “really existing” capitalism. 

Today, history is speeding up, and our modern-day reformists formulate predictions that take but mere months to be repudiated.

It is less than a year ago that Jacobin was dreaming about how the Sanders campaign could reform American capitalism in 20 years. Less than a year later, we have seen an unemployment armageddon, with more than 16 million jobs eliminated overnight. Does it make any sense at all for these workers who have lost their jobs to solve their problems by supporting one of the ruling classes’ two parties?

What To Do?

Capitalism is a system that cannot function without crises. And these crises can only be solved in one of two ways: either the capitalists figure out how to have the workers pay for the crisis; or the workers use the crisis to rise up and expropriate the capitalists. Hoping things return to “normal” means nothing other than hoping the capitalists can stabilize their rule so we can return to the status quo of begging them for reforms.

Now there are thousands of young socialists in the United States thinking about what conclusions to draw from the sudden collapse of Sanderism. After the failure of this attempt to implement socialist politics — even in their most watered-down variety — inside a bourgeois party, some will conclude that they should reject the struggle for political power. They will retreat to helping with emergency food deliveries, sewing masks, and all sorts of “mutual aid.”

It’s not that this kind of mutual aid is unimportant! But the scale of the current crisis shows that capitalism creates catastrophic problems that cannot be solved by neighbors getting together. To deal with the pandemic, we need a conversion of industrial production, a network of hospitals, and worldwide logistics — and centralized power so working people can administer all that, along with the emergency measures. As the communist poet Bertolt Brecht had his workers’ choir sing: “We need not only the jobs. We need the whole factory — and the iron, and the ore, and state power!”

The worst lesson that can be drawn from the collapse of the Sanders campaign is presented by former revolutionary Paul Heideman in Jacobin, claiming that the Left needs to choose between “electoral politics” (by which he means support for the Democratic Party) and subcultural movements.1Heideman is a good example of how rather than pulling the United States to the left, the Sanders campaign has pulled U.S. socialists to the right. In reality, the choice is the same one Rosa Luxemburg presented 100 years ago: between a revolutionary perspective that attempts to establish a new society (using all means, including electoral ones) and a reformist perspective that aims to make “surface modifications to the old system.” Who, given the current state of world capitalism, would claim we have any time to attempt such surface modifications?

What we need right now is a socialist party — indeed, a revolutionary socialist party — that  works to unite the workers’ rebellions springing up all over the country and connect them with a program for overthrowing the rule of capital. Such a party could use elections in order to spread its ideas to working people. But its strategy would not be based on winning elections — it would be about winning power by destroying the capitalists’ state and replacing it with a workers’ government based on the self-organization of the masses.

Such a program might have sounded “utopian” a month ago. But now it is the only “realistic” vision for fighting against the pandemic. Does it sound in any way “realistic,” in the face of the catastrophe we are facing, to hope that Joe Biden becomes U.S. president in 2021 so we can then elect a more progressive Democrat in 2024 or 2028? We are on the eve of great convulsions, and “the Götterdämmerung2The “twilight of the gods” (from Germanic mythology) is their final destruction in an apocalyptic battle with the forces of evil. The word has come to mean any cataclysmic downfall of a regime, institution, or system of government and economics. of the bourgeois world approaches,” as August Bebel — one of the founders of German socialism — once put it.

Socialist organizations are built up in times of relative peace. But they fulfill their mission in times of acute crises — like we are experiencing right now — when countless millions of working people are forced to ask what kind of system they are going to live in. The bourgeoisie is already showing how they intend to solve this crisis: erecting police states that will persist long after COVID-19 recedes. How can any self-declared socialist seriously propose that we base our strategy on the hope that these capitalists and their governments will voluntarily cede power to a socialist working class?

A number of socialist organizations — not only the DSA, but also smaller ones such as Socialist Alternative and the Party for Socialism and Liberation — have thrown their lot in with the idea that socialist transformation could begin with an electoral campaign inside a bourgeois party. But the development of capitalism itself has interrupted this plan of slowly building a progressive wing of the Democratic Party and hoping it eventually breaks from that party. Now is the time to take concrete steps toward the formation of a genuine workers’ party that fights for socialism, based on the experiences of struggle that workers are gaining everywhere. 


1 Heideman is a good example of how rather than pulling the United States to the left, the Sanders campaign has pulled U.S. socialists to the right.
2 The “twilight of the gods” (from Germanic mythology) is their final destruction in an apocalyptic battle with the forces of evil. The word has come to mean any cataclysmic downfall of a regime, institution, or system of government and economics.
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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French. He is on the autism spectrum.


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