Workers Vanguard No. 1072
7 August 2015
Reformist Left Plays in Bernies Sandbox
Oscar Wilde’s description of British upper-class fox hunting—“the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible”—is an apt summation of the spectacle of reformist “socialists” hotly debating whether or not to support Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president. Socialist Alternative (SAlt) kicked off that debate more than a year ago. Flush with excitement over the 2013 election of its supporter Kshama Sawant to Seattle’s city council, SAlt announced: “There has not been a more propitious time in modern American history to begin to build a pro-working class political force” (socialistalternative.org, 16 April 2014). SAlt then began to churn out articles pleading with Sanders to make a run for president as an independent rather than as a Democrat. Finding this offer one he could easily refuse, Sanders announced his run for the Democratic Party nomination as well as his intention to support whichever candidate the Democrats nominate, presumably Hillary Clinton.
Thus rebuffed, SAlt rallied with Pepe Le Pew-like doggedness to Plan B: its members will work in the Sanders primary campaign while not advocating a vote to him (as a Democrat) in order to pressure him to run in the general election as an independent. Belaboring the obvious, SAlt acknowledged that Sanders’ campaign could “be used as a convenient ‘left flank’ by Clinton to draw in support from union members and activists who are fed up with corporate politics” (socialistalternative.org, 9 May). Wringing its hands, SAlt opines: “It would be tragic if Sanders’ campaign ends up playing this role,” as if it could be anything other than a vehicle to rope the disaffected back into the Democratic Party fold. Indeed, despite his rare and completely nominal claims to being an “independent socialist,” for the past 25 years Sanders has been a member of the Democratic Party congressional caucuses.
In this capacity, the Vermont Senator’s record of service to U.S. imperialism has been nearly impeccable. In the 1990s, he supported the NATO war against Serbia instigated by Democratic Party president Bill Clinton as well as the UN starvation sanctions that killed more than 1.5 million Iraqis. Over the years, he has generally backed every U.S. military intervention abroad, including in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2001, Sanders voted in favor of the “Authorization for the Use of Military Force,” which launched U.S. imperialism’s war and occupation of Afghanistan and later Iraq. More recently, he backed a Senate resolution supporting the 2014 Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Gaza.
On the home front, Sanders enlisted in the “war against crime” (read: black people), supporting Clinton’s 1994 “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act,” which vastly expanded the crimes punishable by death at the hands of the federal government, poured 100,000 more cops onto the streets to patrol the inner cities and provided billions more in funding for prisons. It is small wonder that Sanders’ response to the explosion of outrage in black Baltimore against racist cop terror was to comment: “Being a cop is a hard job.”
With such a background, Sanders has even elicited some criticism from the inveterate opportunists of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), who are engaged in a debate with SAlt over the probity of the latter’s tactics in supporting the candidate. Arguing that “his record should lead socialists to question” Sanders’ purported “independence” is none other than ISO leader Todd Chretien, himself an experienced participant in bourgeois electoralism. In 2006, Chretien ran for the small-time capitalist Green Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate in California. For years, the Green Party has served as a stopover for disgruntled liberals on the road back to the Democratic Party.
All the ISO’s current hypocritical lectures on “independence” are designed to mask their own capitulation to the Democrats mediated through the likes of the Greens. Moreover, news of the large crowds Sanders has attracted with his verbiage about “political revolution against the billionaires” exerts the kind of pull that the ISO cannot resist: numbers. Chretien promises that the ISO will not be “stuck on the sidelines”:
“Not at all. The Sanders’ campaign gives us an opportunity to debate socialist politics. If Sanders wants to bring movement and union activists into the Democratic Party through its left entrance, we should try to get them back out that door and into the streets. We can engage on political issues with People for Bernie groups and encourage them to take part in activism outside the electoral arena.”
—socialistworker.org, 20 May
In short, the ISO proposes to redirect the energies of campaigners for “Bernie” to putatively more promising tasks—like maybe re-hydrating the desiccated remains of the Occupy movement or some other vehicle designed to pressure the capitalist Democratic Party to “serve the people.”
To this end, the ISO trots out Howie Hawkins, a leader of the Green Party who won nearly 5 percent of the vote in his 2014 New York gubernatorial campaign against Democrat Andrew Cuomo. In an article titled “Bernie Sanders Is No Eugene Debs” (socialistworker.org, 26 May), Hawkins argues, “Too many self-proclaimed socialists in the U.S. have abandoned the socialist principle of independent political action.” He should know! From the Peace & Freedom Party in the late 1960s to the Greens today, Hawkins is a veteran of capitalist “third parties” whose purpose is to channel social discontent into the ballot box. After some grandiose misuse of longtime Socialist Party leader Debs and also of Karl Marx, Hawkins gets down to business: “From an independent socialist point of view, all the money and time going into Sanders’ handoff to Clinton is time and money that could be going into getting Jill Stein’s Green Party candidacy on every ballot in the country.”
The independence of the working class from all the parties—the Greens included—that represent the interests of the capitalist exploiters is the elementary precondition for struggle against this system of wage slavery. It was well over 150 years ago, following the failed bourgeois revolutions of 1848, that Marx and Engels grasped that any support to or mixing of banners with the parties of the bourgeoisie or petty bourgeoisie was anathema to the workers’ fight. Against calls for support to the German Democratic Party of the time, Marx argued in his 1850 “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League”:
“It is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far—not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world—that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers. Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one.”
In Defense of Debs
The reformist riders in the third-party clown car at the Democratic Party rodeo invoke the heritage of Eugene V. Debs. Such fondness is not for the Debs who campaigned for the overthrow of the capitalist order by the revolutionary proletariat but rather for the early Socialist Party, which included both fighters for workers revolution and outright racists and apologists for the American imperialist order. SAlt positively salivates: “For all the faults of the Socialist Party in the first few decades of the 20th Century, it would be an excellent development if we had today a similar ‘socialist’ organization of tens of thousands of people with dozens of elected officials” (socialistalternative.org, 7 July).
James P. Cannon, a founding leader of the American Communist movement and later of American Trotskyism, was part of the left wing of the Socialist Party that exited that organization under the impact of the 1917 Russian Revolution. In his article “The Debs Centennial” (Fourth International, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter 1956), Cannon reviled those who “have discovered new virtues in the old Socialist Party, which polled so many votes in the time of Debs” for doing “an injustice to the memory of Debs.” He concluded: “The triumph of the cause he served so magnificently will require a different political instrument—a different kind of party—than the one he supported. The model for that is the party of Lenin.”
While the reformists pitch their respective tents in the camp of the parties of the capitalist class enemy, we in the SL struggle for a revolutionary workers party like Lenin’s and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks that aims for nothing other and nothing less than the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of workers rule. Such a perspective is dismissed as at best a hopeless utopia by SAlt and the ISO, who preach that one must reach people “where they are at.” But the Bolshevik Revolution actually happened. And there were a good number of subsequent proletarian uprisings that failed due to both the lack of a revolutionary party to lead the workers to victory and the treachery of self-proclaimed “socialists” who defended the capitalist order.
The course charted by the ISO and SAlt—a progression of baby steps of reform through building “movements” that will pressure the capitalist state into enacting a decent social order—has never happened anywhere. Not in the 19th century, not in the 20th, nor will it ever. But as the current embodiment of social-democratic opposition to working-class struggle and socialist revolution, the ISO and SAlt have a bridge or two they are trying to sell in the current round of bourgeois elections in America.