Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash
Justine Canady spoke (alongside Eric Lee) at the London Workers' Liberty forum on 31 January 2020 about "Feeling the Bern".
The prospect of Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic nomination for president is becoming increasingly likely. A poll yesterday had him leading the Democratic primaries at 30%, meaning he will win the nomination in Iowa- an important start to his campaign.
And this is all extremely exciting. While on one side mainstream Americans political views seem to have taken a huge turn to the right, on the other side they are shifting to the left, calling for what are basic social democratic norms in other countries like free healthcare and university education. He is a part of the wave of progressive politics, anywhere from Teen Vogue articles to scenes in the cartoon series Bojack Horseman about striking assistants, all of which are working to popularize socialism, particularly amongst young Americans.
He is considered the American Jeremy Corbyn, but is actually much better. He talks specifically about the working class and mobilizes people to visit picket lines. When there were mass protests against Trump, Bernie was on the streets too. Where is Corbyn on our pickets, at our protests?
Bernie in many ways is also more internationalist. In response to Elizabeth Warren’s bleating about American workers and American jobs, Sanders said that he “will change the terms of the global economy to lift up workers everywhere, reversing the race to the bottom” that, he argues, compels “American workers to compete with desperate workers in Vietnam who make less than a dollar an hour and migrant computer workers in Malaysia who are working as modern-day slaves.” He is also explicitly better on immigration than Corbyn and most of the Labour party. And as far as I'm aware he has never been on Press TV.
So then what’s wrong with Bernie? Well he’s not a socialist. He’s a social democrat. His definition of what socialism is either a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept or a wilful misrepresentation.
At best he says socialism is what they have in Scandinavian countries but more frequently he says socialism is FDR’s New Deal project during the Great Depression. A project which in many instances stood against the labour movement, many times colluding with the union bureaucracies to weaken the labour movement and absorb it into the Democratic Party, where these labour movements died. FDR's new deal was fundamentally created to save capitalism, not dismantle it. And as those of us in this room know, socialism is not “the government doing things”, as Sanders’s analysis (and some people in our Labour Party) may suggest.
It’s also worth noting that the Sanders we are seeing in 2020 is very different from the Sanders we saw 2016. 2016 Sanders was only a recent Democrat, not yet completely entrenched in the Democratic Party and the “blue no matter who” mentality. He had previously been an independent, although voting closely with democrats. 2016 Sanders also had the possibility of capitalizing on the massive stitch up that was the Democratic National Conference and take the energy and anger from the people who supported him into making something like an American Labour Party.
But instead he campaigned for Clinton. And many of the people who had been inspired by him, campaigned for Clinton. And now he is part of getting Democratic candidates elected, albeit progressive candidates, but a part of the Democrats, with all the parties faults and follies, nonetheless.
And why is this an issue? Because the Democratic Party simply cannot be reformed and it should not be the work of American leftists to try to reform it. The Democratic Party is... Well anything but democratic. There's no actual mechanism in which the party can be made better. There's no local branch meetings, like we have in CLPs. There's not a conference where regular people like you and me go and speak on motions and vote on Party policy. There's no NEC that's elected by members.
The party isn't even a member based party! You register when you get your driver's license as a Democrat, Republican or Independent. You don’t pay membership fees and carry a card. You are just registered as a Democrat. The only privilege is you get to vote in the primaries. (In some states: in others, you can vote in Democrat primaries even if you are registered as something else). The Labour Party is far from perfect, but we at least have basic democratic structures in place that we can utilize to push it to the left.
And what's more, we know the Democrats don’t want to be reformed. It’s a party of the bosses and we should see it more or less as Republicans- main difference democrats are marginally less racist and aren’t spending all their time trying to stop a gay couple from getting a wedding cake. The Democrat’s interests are with Capital and they won’t let us take the party to where we want to take it.
So where does that leave the left in America? Do we support a Sanders presidency? I think yes we do. Sanders’s campaign has done a world of good for American politics, whatever its limitations are. But the role of the American left now isn’t really about getting Bernie elected, it's about using the politics of Sanders and the campaign and trying to harness it into something better. It’s about creating a real alternative in the form of a mass workers party. A party with real democracy and is actually serious about dismantling capitalism. Groups like unions and the DSA are key to this.
I think it would be extremely exciting and uplifting to see Sanders win the nomination. It’s true that Sanders is the only candidate that can beat Trump. But that's only in the ballot box. If Sanders were to win, Capital would use all their power to stop him from carrying out his program of mass reform. He would need an organized and militant movement beneath him to push through these changes. But also, there's no doubt in my mind that once in power, he’d swerve to the right without a movement to keep him accountable. And then all a Sanders presidency will be is an example of false hope and a wave of defeatism turning people to the right or to indifference.
The American left has a hell of a lot of work ahead of them, but they stand on the shoulders of giants, like the heroes of the Haymarket Affair and its aftermath who were killed in the struggle for an 8 hour day. One of the actors in that was Lucy Parsons, a founder of the IWW, who said, “Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth”.
I think this quote needs to be shouted far and wide to American lefties right now. Because to truly win, our American comrades must grasp on to the reins of the Sanders campaign and its followers and widen it out to beyond the ballot box.