The movement around Bernie Sanders' bid for the US presidency represents an opportunity to advance socialist politics in that country in a way not seen for a generation or more. The ongoing detoxification of the word and idea of “socialism” in American political life, to the extent that one 2019 poll showed that 61% of Americans aged between 18-24 preferred “socialism” to “capitalism” [bit.ly/genZs], is both a consequence of, and a catalyst for, the Sanders phenomenon.
The immense damage done to the ideological mystique of free-market, neoliberal capitalism by the 2008 crash has, on the whole, been exploited most effectively by various forms of identitarian nationalism. That is true in the USA too, with the rise of Trumpism. But, surprisingly, America is also one of the countries where the terrain has been contested most explosively by the left.
Sanders’ political perspectives are limited, and he often describes socialism as Scandinavian state welfarism or FDR “New Deal” state-aid measures. Nevertheless, he explicitly describes himself as a socialist; emphasises the working class and class struggle; and actively support for unions and strikes. On some key international issues, such as Israel/Palestine, where he advocates a two-states settlement rather than the “abolish-Israel” maximalism of much of the far left, his positions are distinctly better than default far-left common sense.
Sanders has spent his entire career in politics as an independent, sits in the Senate as an independent, and is still not a "registered" Democrat. Yet, thanks to the oddities of the US political system, he has run for the presidency as a Democrat.
Revolutionary socialists of almost all stripes and schools have understood the Democratic party as a straightforwardly ruling-class party, despite the fact that, since the 1960s, it has tended to represent the more liberal wing of the US ruling class, and rely for its electoral base on a coalition which centrally involved oppressed minorities and organised labour. Eugene Debs summed up the socialist analysis in 1904, saying: “The Republican and Democratic parties are alike capitalist parties - differing only in being committed to different sets of capitalist interests - they have the same principles under varying colors, are equally corrupt and are one in their subservience to capital and their hostility to labor.”
The Sanders movement has not altered the essential character of the Democratic party, which remains a straightforwardly capitalist party, partially enmeshed with the US state. It is not a “bourgeois workers’ party” as socialists have historically understood that form - i.e., a party politically dominated by pro-capitalist elements and ideology, but with structural or historic links to the organised labour movement, that can be used as mechanisms for working-class political self-assertion.
What the Sanders movement has done, however, is necessitate some reconsideration of what strategic approaches towards Democratic party electoral mechanisms might be possible for socialists. If Sanders had chosen to run as a third-party or independent candidate, it is highly unlikely he would have had an equivalent impact. For socialists to refuse to support his bid for the Democratic nomination, or refuse to advocate a vote for him if he secures it, would be profoundly sectarian.
Sanders winning the nomination would be a disruption of the Democrats’ historic politics and may well result in one or more splits in the Democratic machine. Such splits should be seen as positive aims to organise towards rather than unfortunate outcomes to be avoided.
This is an area where the potential of the movement around Sanders comes into direct conflict with the limitations of his own perspectives. Using Democratic electoral primaries as a platform for advancing socialist politics may make tactical sense in certain situations; clearly it has been effective for Sanders, on his own terms. But if such efforts are to serve the longer-range aims of the establishment of a socialist, working-class political party, independent of the Democrats, they must be honest about that aspiration and about the analysis of the Democrats, rather than promoting, as Sanders does, albeit in a contradictory way, the idea that the Democratic Party as such can be reformed or reclaimed.
The movement around him is currently fairly diffuse and amorphous, lacking clear permanent organisation. Our Revolution is the closest thing Sanders has to an organisation, and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is important in his campaign, but neither body is the “Sanders party”, as such, in the sense of a mass, membership-based, democratic organisation that can affect the direction of Sanders' campaign, develop its politics, and hold him as a leader and figurehead to account. Our Revolution has run a “transform the party” campaign, encouraging leftists and progressives to run for Democratic nominations, on the basis that a sufficient number of these could, indeed, “transform” the Democrats into a leftist party.
Should Sanders lose the primary, as now seems likely, the movement around him, and left-wing opinion in America in general, will be faced with a choice: fall in line behind a straightforwardly corporate, pro-free-market Democrat, or attempt to find some way of articulating in the general election some version of the politics Sanders stood for.
As in 2016, there will be calls for Sanders to run as an independent. Had he staked out this possibility in advance, these calls might have some grip, but he has, even earlier than in 2016, committed to supporting whoever is the eventual Democratic nominee. There will be understandable social pressure for his movement to swing behind Biden, on an “anyone-but-Trump” basis. Clearly, a Biden presidency would be preferable to a Trump presidency – just as, to posit a rough UK analogy, a David Cameron government would be preferable to a Nigel Farage government. But voting Cameron to stop Farage, when there was another option, would still be an abandonment of working-class political independence.
Voting for Biden would mean a vote to positively endorse the representative of one ruling-class faction against another. That pressure to do that on an individual moral basis is entirely understandable, but it is not a strategy for developing a movement. The American labour and wider working-class movement, and the diffuse leftist movement grouped around Sanders, needs its own voice in politics. It will never develop such a voice if the movement is repeatedly forced to back the lesser evil.
Howie Hawkins, a veteran anti-Stalinist socialist, currently leads the race for the Green Party presidential nomination. Should Sanders be defeated, then Hawkins securing that nomination and running the strongest campaign possible would be the best way, however marginal, of raising an independent socialist voice in the general election. Within and beyond the election, too, specific campaigning will continue around particular policies – Medicare for All, a $15/hour minimum wage, free tuition, a Green New Deal, racial justice, and more. Such campaigning needs a permanently-organised national framework to take it forward, and knit it together into a coherent, across-the-board social policy – in effect, a workers' plan. Such campaigns should level demands on Joe Biden, if he is the Democratic nominee, but why should they tell supporters to vote for him when they have no means of directly holding him to account; when he is at best lukewarm about such policies and frequently actively hostile and opposed to them; and especially if there is a third-party option on the ballot? As Debs's old adage has it, “I'd rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don't want, and get that.”
It is, of course, relatively easy for us, as socialists thousands of miles away who will not have to live with the direct, domestic material consequences of the outcome of the general election, to dispense strategic advice. Our aim is to follow, as closely as we can, debate and discussion on the American left, and consider arguments made there both for and against a “vote Biden” position. But from our current vantage point we remain convinced by those on the US left advocating that the “independentist” logic of the Sanders campaign be continued and extended, rather than subsumed into a campaign for Biden.
There is a glaring objective need for a well-organised, ideologically-clear political tendency to intervene in the Sanders movement to make arguments for: class-struggle socialism, where socialism is understood as democratic workers’ rule on the basis of social ownership; a “third camp” perspective on global politics; a rank-and-fileist orientation to the labour movement; and a working-class political party that can organise for all these. There are some groups of socialists, in various tendencies in the DSA, in Solidarity, in the scattered remnants of the International Socialist Organization, and around the New Politics journal, who advocate for some aspects of that approach, and with whom we in Workers' Liberty share a broad theoretical tradition and some political coordinates. We seek discussion and exchange with those comrades in particular.
There is no easy roadmap to an independent socialist, or labour-movement-based, party in the USA. Getting there will probably require a variety of strategic approaches, and some tactical flexibility. Using Democratic primaries, as well as independent and third-party challenges, will be part of the necessary mix of electoral approaches. But to advance the policies the Sanders movement articulates, let alone to develop a more radical platform, requires an organisation. It requires a party. It is too soon to say that such a party exists in embryo merely in the large rallies and canvassing efforts of the Sanders campaign. But the Sanders movement, the growth of the DSA, campaigns like Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, and others, have made such a party more possible than it has been for generations. Charting a course towards it first requires that it be declared, and understood, as the destination.