Ideas & Debates
IDEAS AND DEBATES
A Socialist Case Against Bernie 2020
A left-populist campaign inside the Democratic Party will not get us closer to socialism.
January 25, 2019
This article will be included in an upcoming print edition.
Jacobin magazine and members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) grouped around The Call are advocating an early endorsement of Bernie Sanders for president in the 2020 elections. They also want the DSA to prioritize this electoral campaign over all other activities.
In the past few months, Jacobin has ramped up its efforts to uplift and promote the senator from Vermont in his eventual run for the Oval Office. “Listen to your heart. ... Bernie Sanders should run for President,” reads an article titled “Run, Bernie, Run,” published on December 12 in the center-left publication.
The bulk of Sanders’ supporters are Democratic voters of a liberal persuasion who do not see the need to end capitalism, but who recognize the gaping inequalities and other consequences of neoliberalism as an urgent problem. For this group of people—who may fully agree with Sanders’ social democratic platform—putting Bernie in the White House might be their only goal. This article focuses on debating the socialists who, acknowledging the serious shortcomings of Sanders’ progressive platform, argue for endorsing him as a Democratic contender for president.
In the socialist milieu, the proponents of building a campaign for “Bernie 2020” put forward two main arguments: first, that Sanders’ campaign is the “best available means to raise workers’ class consciousness,” and second, that there is a battle inside the Democratic Party between a progressive and a corporate wing, and that we socialists need to take part in that fight.
Let us discuss the first argument. Is an electoral campaign for Sanders the best way to “raise working-class consciousness”? Is his potential presidential bid inside the Democratic Party a means to increase workers’ “consciousness of their own power”?
To achieve working-class consciousness, workers must become aware that they all belong to the same class and that they share a common interest. Workers’ consciousness also involves workers’ realization of their own power and the understanding that those who exploit us are also united in a class by a common interest. It only takes a step further to recognize that this class holds the reins of state institutions, the system of laws and the government.
Therefore, it is curious to state that Sanders’ campaign is the “best available means” to raise workers’ consciousness. As many have remarked, a working-class electoral program that reflects the demands of the most oppressed can be relatively effective at ruthlessly criticizing the institutions of a capitalist society: The ridiculously undemocratic Supreme Court deciding the destinies of millions, the intrinsically racist character of the police, the Senate’s ultraconservative bias, the revolving door in Congress and so on. But for this program to push workers’ consciousness further, it has to be anticapitalist, bold and uncompromising. And let us be clear: In the case of endorsing Sanders for 2020, the DSA would be providing foot soldiers for his campaign with little to no leverage over the content of his platform.
On the other hand, it is a mistake to consider elections the only way to advance workers’ consciousness. Class struggle (in its various forms) can play a prominent role in this process: Workers become more aware of their strength and recognize more clearly their enemies through fighting the boss at work, the experience of a strike or through working-class campaigns such as organizing against police brutality or against housing displacement. Socialists and revolutionaries involved in these experiences can play a vital catalyzing role, drawing lessons from the battles against bosses and state officials.
Once Again on the Democratic Party
The biggest problem with Bernie 2020 is that he will run for the Democratic Party. (If anyone still believes that Sanders is an independent, his statement on the reforms the Democratic Party needs shows that he’s standing squarely inside of it.) So, what kind of workers’ consciousness will such a campaign raise? Instead of encouraging workers to build and trust their own power, if socialist organizations such as the DSA endorse Sanders’ Democratic bid, it will send the message that the vehicle for achieving our goals is, indeed, the Democratic Party. Sanders himself puts it very clearly. In his interview with Daniel Denvir for the Jacobin podcast, he stressed, “There may be some exceptions to the rule in this or that community around the country, but the action has got to be within the Democratic Party.”
It is now a common understanding among the left that the Democratic Party has historically been a political cartel involved in undermining socialist projects and dismantling social movements, securing the profits of the capitalist class and upholding imperialist foreign policies. It has successfully co-opted disruptive social forces, from the civil rights’ in the 1960s to the immigrant rights movement in the early 2000s. Conversely, it was at a moment of deep crisis and disillusion in the Democratic Party—when it proved incapable of preventing Donald Trump’s rise to power—that the DSA and other left organizations grew most dramatically.
The crisis in the Democratic Party is the inevitable consequence of a long process. Riding the bandwagon of neoliberalism, Democrats have moved to the right in the past three decades. Although President Carter initiated the right-wing turn, it was President Clinton who embraced neoliberalism wholeheartedly in the 1990s. The extremely undemocratic character of the U.S. electoral system allowed both parties of capital to alternate in power uncontested. Democrats and Republicans, relying on ever-lower voter turnout and the safety of first-past-the-pole elections , kept shifting right. But the ground below their feet became thinner and thinner. Come 2016, the Democratic Party had lost connection with a large portion of its traditional base—which is generally more urban and working-class than that of the Republicans.
The Democratic Party is still in deep trouble, but it is making concrete steps toward rebranding itself. The new generation of “insurgent Democrats,” led by progressive groups such as Indivisible, Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress are a central piece in this effort. The new figureheads are breathing new life into the party, just as Sanders did in 2016 and will eventually do in 2019-2020, while entrenched leaders like Sen. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer hold the reins of the party, trim the radical edges of policies on immigration or health care and keep steering politics straight along the center of the political spectrum.
So when I hear that campaigning for a progressive Democrat is the best means of advancing working-class politics, I can’t help but think that the imagination of American socialists is severely limited. Aren’t there a host of prominently working-class issues that socialists can take up as their main struggle in the coming two years? Even in the realm of electoral politics, aren’t there a decent number of socialists who could run credible races for positions in local legislatures, or even for Congress, even if a victory is less likely?
Writing for The Call, Robbie Nelson asserts that, by endorsing Bernie 2020, “we can persuasively offer the message to millions of Sanders supporters that the best way to really carry forward a political revolution is to become active in socialist organizations, unions, and grassroots-led social movements.” Is that the case? Putting hundreds—or even thousands—of people to work canvassing, phone-banking and registering voters for the Democratic Party is hardly an activity that will help them move toward breaking with the dead end of bourgeois politics or help carve out a space for the growing socialist movement in the United States. It will only bring young new socialists into the Democratic Party’s fold.
As early as in mid-2018, The Call spearheaded a push to rally behind Bernie 2020 and make the campaign a top priority for the coming period, even before Sanders himself announced his run for president! Discussing the ongoing struggle between a corporate and a progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Neal Meyer and Ben B acutely point out that “engaging in intraparty squabbles is not a strategic use of activists’ time. To the extent it does anything, it creates [false] illusions about the progressive potential of the Democrats.” I couldn’t agree more. But they go on to argue that “socialists need to jump in and fight to bend the process in a direction favorable to the working class.”
The contradiction in their statement is glaring. The truth is that DSA members grouped around The Call agree with Sanders that the main fight for socialists today takes place inside the Democratic Party. I believe it is no business of socialists to intervene in a bourgeois party’s internal power struggles. If anything, we should help its demise altogether. At a minimum, the DSA, with its more than 50,000 members, could have a better orientation for the coming two years than rallying behind an electoral project inside the Democratic Party.
In 2018 a wave of teachers’ strikes shook the country and ignited hopes in an uptick of class struggle. There are other compelling signs that we are in the midst of a new wave of labor unrest: The victory of hotel workers in Chicago and Boston, the UTLA teachers’ strike and a host of smaller struggles and victories point to a revitalization of the labor movement. The role of socialists in these struggles is paramount.
The Yellow Vest movement in France shows that the response to decades of neoliberalism, austerity and rollbacks on welfare need not be conservative nationalism. Despite its limitations as a heterogeneous, multiclass response, the mass mobilizations dealt a blow to French President Emmanuel Macron’s administration, forcing a complete withdrawal of the gas tax increase, and they highlighted the potential of direct action on a mass scale. Although France has a stronger tradition of social uprisings, U.S. history is rife with explosions of rage and mass movements. There is no reason why we shouldn’t expect and prepare to intervene in similar conjunctures in the United States.
Bernie Sanders and the Class Line
In a piece published in Jacobin, Ben Becket argues that “no other candidate has either the desire or the ability to polarize the country along class lines.” It is true that Sanders’ platform congeals many deeply felt working-class demands. For example, the push for universal health care is a working-class issue that puts capitalists and workers in squarely opposite camps. Passing a Medicare for All bill will not, however, decommodify health care, as many have argued—you would still need to get rid of private hospitals, Big Pharma, the medical tech industry, etc.—but it would put workers in a much better position to fight for their demands.
Put simply, having access to health care independent of employment status will allow workers to organize at their workplaces and confront their bosses through collective action without the fear of losing health coverage for them and their families. But we need to be clear: Given the enormous economic interests at stake, universal health care will be achieved only through mass mobilization and the threat of disruption. This means that the struggle for Medicare for All will be waged more outside Congress than inside it. The DSA has the opportunity and the capacity to mobilize its thousands of members to organize in their unions, schools and workplaces and to become the main driving force of a national campaign for universal health care. Prioritizing Sanders’ electoral campaign for the next year or two will eventually run against such orientation.
Other items in Sanders’ platform are, similarly, favorable for working-class people, such as the increase in the federal minimum wage and the proposal for tuition-free college. Yet these demands are not proposed by Sanders in a way that “polarizes the country along class lines.” He presents these issues in a liberal key, appealing to common sense and a sentiment of social justice, not as part of an indictment of the capitalist system. Time and again, Sanders talks about the “billionaire class,” about the immoral concentration of wealth in a few hands and about the unfairness of working long hours for poverty wages and no benefits. All this is fine, and most working-class people would agree with it, but Sanders’ rhetoric and program point not toward socialism but to a slightly more tolerable version of capitalism. This might sound like too much to ask from a credible presidential candidate for 2020. But does anyone on the socialist left really think that our road to power will proceed through the 2020 elections? The decision of whom to endorse should not depend on their chances to win the nomination of a major party or even the general elections.
Sanders’ politics have often been described as “populist left,” and with good reason. His social-democratic policies are blended with nationalist rhetoric about “American values” and “keeping good jobs.” Peter Frase, writing for In These Times, makes the point that rallying behind Sanders’ popularity can “obscure the need to ground our struggles in mass organizing” and lead us to wed ourselves to his “New Deal liberalism” rather than debating what “socialism” really means. Furthermore, the fact that he is running on a Democratic Party ballot cannot be divorced from the political content of his campaign: It is a statement that provides stability and continuity to the political establishment.
It would certainly be different if Sanders ran on an independent ballot line, which he surely has the resources to do. This would be an important step in building an independent political alternative to the two main parties of capital. But there are two reasons why I would still not support his bid: First, his record on foreign policy shows not even a shadow of the anti-imperialist politics we need for a U.S. socialist movement. Second, a third party alone is not what we need. From Marx to Kautsky, from Debs to Trotsky, socialists have always been clear that it is the working class that has the power to radically transform society, and they have therefore argued for an independent political organization of the working class. Sanders’ populism, although it advances some working-class demands, does not seek to organize and mobilize American workers as a class. If the DSA is serious about its aim of transforming its social composition from predominantly middle-class to a working-class organization, upholding working-class independence in political endorsements is a good place to start.
The Left and Bernie Sanders
The DSA can bind itself to the populist rhetoric of a Democratic Party candidate, but it would do so to its own detriment. It is true that after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in July, the DSA grew by the thousands. But an increase in membership cannot be the sole purpose of a political organization that seeks the end of capitalism. It is reasonable to assume that those who join the DSA after electoral victories on a Democratic Party ballot line are on average much more amenable to seeking electoral successes through tactical alliances. Then it comes full circle: A larger portion of the membership will vote for endorsing Democratic Party candidates, and the endorsement process runs more smoothly each time. The risks of going down that road are evident.
In a sharp essay written in 1911, Eugene V. Debs warns of the danger posed by the growth in votes for the Socialist Party when detached from building power at workplaces and without a patient political education of its members:
All the votes of the people would do us no good if our party ceased to be a revolutionary party, or only incidentally so, while yielding more and more to the pressure to modify the principles and program of the party for the sake of swelling the vote and hastening the day of its expected triumph.
The same people who contend that socialists are not yet in the position to run their own candidates are the ones most forcefully arguing to rally behind Bernie 2020. I appreciate the ambition and the urge to speak to hundreds of thousands; much of the traditional left in the United States has for too long rejoiced in having the right position while remaining isolated and small. But if the DSA still doesn’t have the strength and recognition to run a credible presidential campaign, throwing all its weight behind Sanders—while obscuring the important differences between socialism and progressive liberalism—is not its best option. The DSA could run its own candidates in hundreds of districts for local, state and national office, and it could even run a presidential candidate of its own, even if the chances of winning are close to zero. Instead of trailing behind a celebrity-like progressive Democrat, bolder independent socialist candidacies that are smaller but sharper will achieve much more toward claiming an identity for the socialist left and advancing uncompromisingly socialist ideas.
Some of us are convinced that a revolutionary strategy is the only one with the potential of achieving socialism. In other words, capitalism can be overthrown only through the direct involvement of the masses in public affairs, a concerted effort of millions toward breaking the institutional underpinnings of capital and defeating the repressive forces of the capitalist state. The tendency to see elections as the primary battlefield, or the main tool to educate socialists who are just awakening to political experience, follows a logic of continuity—not rupture—with the institutions of capitalism. It is based on the illusion of progressive growth and a smooth transition to socialism through the vote. It is a myth, like believing that going regularly to the casino will eventually enable us to beat the house in the long run. A party of combat, one that prepares from now to the critical moment of faceoff with the forces of capital, would put its energy and resources into honing its members, engaging in class struggle, enhancing the contradictions of a system that works for only a few and using elections to spread anticapitalist ideas with no sugarcoating. Since the unions are the first line of combat against capital, building revolutionary fractions in the unions is paramount for any socialist strategy.
The Left Front in Argentina has successfully run openly anticapitalist campaigns since its formation in 2013. Apart from having three members in National Congress, it holds seats in local councils and province legislatures, it organizes thousands of militants in class struggle, in their unions and in the students’ movement, and provides a platform in parliament for the fights that it leads outside of it.
The DSA could run its own candidates or form a coalition with other organizations of the socialist left, like Socialist Alternative, the ISO and a variety of local socialist groups. This would be a small but important step toward building a left that could eventually represent a threat to capitalism.
Historic Roles and the Prospects for Socialism
Sanders fills a vacuum of representation for those who are disenchanted with politics as usual, pissed off at the political establishment and looking for an alternative to the left of the Democratic Party. Despite all the progressive aspects he and his platform present, his role in this scenario is conservative: In 2020 he will, again, funnel working-class people and radicals into a party that has long proved to represent their class enemy. His presidential bid inside the Democratic Party can serve only to dampen the unruly energy of hundreds of thousands who are fed up with the system and ready to engage in a political project that transcends it.
It is common to hear that Sanders played a key role in radicalizing thousands of people and converting them to socialists. Sanders has been around for over three decades, however, and his message has barely changed. This means that rather than single-handedly generating a vast socialist movement, Sanders’ message suddenly connected with a new generation of activists who rightfully saw in capitalism the source of all our social ills—and he successfully put that sentiment in simple, antiestablishment rhetoric. Having a more nuanced appraisal of the role Sanders has played allows us to escape the tunnel-vision belief that there is nothing better we can do than to follow Sanders to his grave.
With the right politics and a bold program, we can convince millions of people of the need for a clean break with capitalism and to lay the grounds for a new society based on solidarity and not exploitation. The material force to spearhead such an effort, the flesh for a socialist revolutionary organization, will not come from getting involved in a campaign for a politician who has repeatedly shown loyalty to the power structures of capitalism. This social force will materialize when the tens of thousands of workers who are fighting their bosses and engaging in collective action (like the striking teachers from West Virginia, Arizona, Los Angeles and other fighting workers across the country) step forward and see that in politics, just as in the workplace, there are two classes, and we need to unite under one banner to fight capital. That is where socialist organizations need to put their efforts: in organizing against racism, police brutality and for affordable housing, for tuition free college and Medicare for All, but more than anything, organizing at the workplaces and in the unions to bring in our politics, fight to wipe out the bureaucratic leadership and recruit our coworkers to socialism through struggle, agitation and propaganda. The long-term potential of such an orientation is much more promising.
In the long run, we need a revolutionary socialist organization that prepares its members and supporters for the decisive battle: the overthrow of capitalism through mass action, general strikes and an inevitable confrontation with the forces of the state. The path to victory has no shortcuts: It involves patient organizing, political education, engaging in legal and illegal tactics, building power in the unions and, most importantly, forming a network of revolutionary cadre who serve as the living muscle cells moving the gigantic body of the working class, in a coordinated and harmonious way. Once the working class stands up and shakes its chains, the sky will be the limit.