A revolutionary view of the Sanders campaign
The competition for the Democratic presidential nomination has become a focus of political life in the United States. For revolutionaries debating how to view this campaign, we must answer the following questions: What is the class character of the Sanders’ movement? What is the potential impact of the Sanders’ movement on the worldwide interests of the working class and the oppressed? How can this development lead to a broader revolutionary upsurge in the heart of the U.S. empire? From there we must chart a plan of action.
Character and context of Sanders’ movement
The rejuvenation of social democracy and liberal reformism, most notably in the rise of the left in the Democratic Party, comes as a response to the decline of the U.S. empire and the inability of the U.S. capitalist economy to provide decent, well-paying jobs to a majority of the working class.
On one hand, the People’s Republic of China has risen as a clear economic and geopolitical challenge to U.S. imperialist world domination. On the other, the U.S. remains plagued by endless imperialist war, mass incarceration, low wages, enormous debt, underemployment, sexual and gender-based violence, and outbursts of racist, fascist terror. A major financial collapse looms, threatening to finally reveal the weaknesses of the real economy and then unleash a deeper ruling-class assault on workers’ quality of life.
In struggle against neoliberal economic terrorism by U.S. banks and corporations and their client states, our class has taken to the streets across the world. Tens of millions have fought against austerity and the capitalist ruling class in Chile, Ecuador, Haiti, France, Colombia and elsewhere; hundreds of millions if India is included. The desperate attempts of the U.S. empire to maintain its stranglehold on the world economy have caused anti-imperialist reactions in Iraq, Iran, Venezuela and Palestine.
The unifying issue of this global struggle is the declining prospects for working-class youth who live in capitalist societies. A multinational youth movement has identified neoliberal capitalism as its primary enemy. In some ways, the second presidential campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders gets its popular energy from and provides a voice for part of the U.S. wing of this working-class youth movement.
The viability of any reformist movement like the Sanders’ campaign, in the face of a weakening global capitalist system, can be debated. Can social democracy and progressive reformism be revived? Insecure about maintaining its profits in a capitalist economy that is declining relative to other world powers, the U.S. ruling class has increased its exploitation of the working class, taking an ever larger proportion of the wealth the workers produce.
Without the material basis provided by the expansion of U.S. imperialism and its reaping of superprofits, any rebirth of social democracy would find it difficult to deliver meaningful benefits to the workers, even should it win an election. What is needed instead is a movement that seeks nothing short of the end of capitalism.
Ruling class attacks Sanders
Earlier this month, Sanders said: “In many respects, we are a socialist society today. … Donald Trump, before he was president, as a private businessperson, he received $800 million in tax breaks and subsidies to build luxury housing in New York. … The difference between my socialism and Trump’s socialism is I believe the government should help working families, not billionaires.” (Axios, Feb. 9)
As communists, we are well aware that Sanders holds political positions we can’t support: his lack of solidarity with international anti-imperialist struggles, his lack of support for reparations for slavery along with Black Lives Matter, his vitriolic attack on pro-socialist leaders like Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, his support for laws criminalizing sex workers and much more.
Sanders’ program is more like Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in the mid-1960s or Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. Sanders’ social democracy is only seen as a “radical socialist” project because the U.S. ruling class has imposed such right-wing, pro-capitalist ideology and programs on the population.
The U.S. ruling class may own finance capital, oil, pharmaceutical giants and the “health” profit industry, be landlords or real estate investors, own big data, agriculture and/or other sectors. Their slightly different specific interests are reflected by the two parties, the Democrats and the Republicans.
Most big capitalists, however, are overjoyed with Trump’s transfer of wealth to their pockets. Others may see Trump as a loose cannon and consider Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg or another politician as more competent to protect and expand their interests. Yet they all unite against Sanders, not just because of the potential impact on their profits, but because they fear a greater social movement could develop that will call into question the elites’ plunder and profit.
Thus, we can expect anti-communist attacks against Sanders to continue to escalate if his campaign continues to gain steam. This red-baiting must be met with an active campaign to popularize real socialism, one that goes beyond Sanders’ deflective statement (in the Axios quote) about how “socialism” already exists for the rich.
Our movement must unequivocally defend the necessity of socialism and the obvious, documented superiority of workers’ ownership of the means of production, paired with planning that prioritizes human needs and the life of the Earth over profits.
Internationalism is a necessity, not an inconvenience
Along with the red-baiting, the attacks on Sanders from pro-Israeli forces — similar to the outrageous attacks on former Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn by the British media — will continue. This is even though Sanders limits his statements on Palestine to support for basic human rights.
Sanders himself is Jewish. Yet this will not stop the attacks on him for alleged anti-Semitism — simply because he doesn’t give full backing to Israel’s murderous campaign to annihilate the Palestinian people. These attacks must be met by a strong, anti-racist movement in defense of the Palestinian people’s right to exist, from the river to the sea.
Sanders claims to be against U.S. wars in Iraq and beyond, yet his voting record doesn’t reflect that. Sanders’ support for U.S. imperialism must be fought by those who wish to see his domestic program be successful. The domestic and foreign policies of the empire are directly connected. Both policies are about the balance of power between the oppressed and the oppressor.
While liberal politicians may fear taking anti-war positions, socialists must expose the foreign policy of the empire as directed by the needs of capitalism. Ruthless sanctions and murder must be contested in the name of international solidarity and the survival of the more than 7.5 billion people in the world threatened by the most violent ruling elite ever, based in Wall Street and Washington.
Our struggle, that of the working class in the U.S., is primarily against the U.S. billionaires, not against other countries. The strategy of revolutionary defeatism — to defeat our own ruling class — as expressed by V.I. Lenin during World War I, should be elementary for revolutionaries and must be learned by a resurgent left that, for too long, has been infected by bourgeois pro-war propaganda.
We must also learn how to resist the imperialist attacks on China, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and beyond. Working-class internationalism and solidarity with the oppressed are central to our long-term goal of socialist revolution.
Allies of the U.S. working class abroad may view the election of Sanders as a victory against the empire. A Sanders’ victory could open serious struggles over the need to dismantle the U.S. empire in order to save the planet, to rebuild the global economy and to pay reparations to those dispossessed by the U.S.
To the extent, however, that Sanders gives public support for closed borders, sanctions, U.S. air strikes and other measures, this would alienate his popular base — a base he would have to rely upon to beat back the inevitable attacks from the right. This contradiction could give rise to a greater level of struggle.
Elections: A barometer or an organizing tool?
As revolutionaries, we know that socialist transformation is necessary for humanity and to sustain life on Earth, and we know this transformation cannot come about by using the “master’s tools” described in the U.S. Constitution. Rather, we view capitalist elections as a limited survey of the attitudes of the multinational working class and the other classes in U.S. society. Every four years, about 55 percent of the voting-age population — with a greater proportion of voters from the less oppressed and older sectors of the working class — choose a president from either of the two major parties, both of which are owned and operated by the capitalists.
Sanders’ campaign has attempted to use the Democratic Party to raise issues in the interests of the working class. Many Democratic Socialists of America members view the Sanders’ campaign, and electoral politics more generally, as the primary channel to engage and radicalize the working class. This is unlike the period from the 1930s to the 1970s when the left looked toward the labor movement or other social movements as the centers of politicization and class identity development.
The argument of DSA and other left groups that have worked alongside the Sanders’ campaign is that the campaign a shortcut to building mass consciousness. Many young activists have hit the streets in the name of the Sanders’ campaign to promote classwide solidarity against the billionaire ruling class and to try to win supporters to their socialist organization.
Ruling-class ideology insists that the primary arena of politics is bourgeois elections, particularly national elections for president. Thus, when the left plans a political strategy, the question of whether to run in elections is a question of what is the most effective type of mass organizing that can build revolutionary socialist consciousness.
The Sanders’ campaign has prioritized the central tenet of the Occupy movement from the last decade: the struggle of the 99% versus the 1%. Sanders has put forth stronger positions on racial justice, migrant rights and many other policies that reflect the hard work of organizers in people’s movements.
Sanders’ 2016 primary campaign took on the right-wing establishment Democratic Party and had a major impact in winning thousands of new people to socialist organizations. The DSA and others have joined this year’s campaign with the goal of recruiting new members and pushing the campaign to the left, riding the wave and seeing where they will end up.
What happens when or if the DNC steals the nomination from Sanders? Will organizations to the left of the Democratic Party still insist on voting “Blue no matter who”? Will there be a political fracture in which the Sanders’ movement, even despite the refusal of Sanders himself, decides to make a “dirty break” from the Democratic Party and form a new socialist electoral third party?
What if Sanders were to get the nomination and then win the election against Trump? Who will defend him from the wrath of the capitalists and a stock market that could be in free fall? Will a mass movement emerge and move in a more radical direction, emboldened by the results?
Will the mirage of capitalist democracy be revealed as a fraud? Will that demoralize the masses or radicalize them?
While the fate of the Sanders’ movement is yet to unfold, the most pressing question for revolutionary socialists may be: What is the most effective way to agitate, educate and organize this Sanders’ movement into an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, revolutionary movement?
Which road to socialism?
Workers World Party believes that the goal of revolutionary parties when entering capitalist electoral politics should be to advance a revolutionary program in order to shatter illusions of capitalist democracy and win broad working-class support. The Democratic Party in the past has been the graveyard of social movements. Still, bourgeois political campaigns can reflect and show the significance of people’s movements.
The question of critical support for or independence from the Sanders’ movement is one we plan to answer through action. We will attend Sanders’ campaign rallies in order to meet this movement and push for revolutionary socialism. We will be in the streets with this movement, raising demands that speak to young people looking for revolutionary change. We look at this development with revolutionary optimism and we will study it closely.
WWP is still considering how to intervene in the 2020 presidential campaign. We will definitely run a major ideological campaign, entitled “Which road to socialism?” With this effort, we will put forth our revolutionary socialist perspective in a wide variety of ways. We will organize regular discussion groups in our branches across the country to engage these questions, all the while reaching out to the Sanders’ movement and those to its left to discuss the contradictions of social democracy and attempt to win people to fight for revolutionary socialism.
We will challenge the weaknesses of Sanders’ movement and push it in a revolutionary direction, not by being sectarian or opportunist, but by waging an honest ideological and mass struggle that speaks to the needs of the working class and the oppressed to go further.
Even moderate social reforms can take place only under the pressure of mass movements in the streets and in our workplaces. Real revolutionary socialism, including the seizure and liberation of private property in the means of production, cannot occur by amending the U.S. Constitution. It must be the result of a worldwide mass movement that uses various tactics and strategies to defeat capitalist rule.
With this in mind, we will launch a series of mobilizations to fight the racist, anti-worker policies of the Trump administration. That the Democratic Party has enabled these policies — for example, the U.S. sanctions that have terrorized hundreds of millions of people on the planet — will expose the imperialist character of both parties.
Currently we are working with hundreds of organizations to launch an international campaign against U.S. sanctions, entitled Sanctions Kill. Campaigns like this allow us to connect with those directly impacted by U.S. sanctions passed by Democrats and Republicans. We will mobilize on May Day to unite the movements against capitalism, imperialism, racism and all the crimes of this system with a show of solidarity on this socialist-inspired, international day of struggle.
We will continue to mobilize against U.S. imperialism in all its manifestations, as part of our devotion to our worldwide class. We will continue to organize for the most oppressed of our class — for incarcerated workers, for political prisoners, for low-wage workers, for people with disabilities, for the homeless, for those oppressed because of gender or gender expression or national origin, and for migrants and refugees — all with the goal of building a broadly popular communist party steeled in combat and the day-to-day struggles of our class.
Finally, we will use this election to push for real democracy. While this election may be seen as a referendum on Trump’s social and economic policies, we will push to make this election a referendum on the crimes of capitalism. Imagine, a people’s referendum in which we vote with our feet, by withholding our labor and by fighting for a real future, a socialist society.