Sanders isn’t a left alternative
Not the cure for what ails us
WHEN PEOPLE are suffering from severe, life-threatening or terminal diseases for which there is no conventional cure, they sometimes put their hope in ineffective, fake or fraudulent treatments. When these cures are exposed as useless, people who are desperate for relief are sometimes reluctant to accept the evidence and may be hostile to the researchers who provide the facts.
I was reminded of this phenomenon when reading the letters from readers criticizing SocialistWorker.org's analysis of Bernie Sanders' campaign in the Democratic Party presidential primaries. We are suffering from all kinds of life-threatening social problems--racism and police brutality, inequality and poverty, imperialism and climate change, the list goes on and on--and we desperately need effective ways of combatting all these threats.
I am not surprised that many people are looking to Sanders as part of the solution, but what the analysis in SocialistWorker.org shows is that his campaign will at best be ineffective and at worst will further disorient and weaken the U.S. left.
"Shame on you for dashing my hopes," writes Ronald D. Carlson. I hate to see the hopes of anyone with progressive goals dashed, but hope in a false solution will ultimately prove much more demoralizing than facing the facts.
The truth is that we have to look for hope in other places--the Black Lives Matter movement, the growing movement against environmental destruction, the fight by low-wage workers for a living wage, resistance to austerity and imperialism in countries around the world, and many other examples of fightbacks from below.
Activists certainly need hope to continue organizing over the long term, but we should not place that hope in strategies that will make our goals harder, not easier, to achieve.
Phil Gasper, Madison, Wisconsin
A booster for U.S. imperialism
I HAVE lived and been an activist in Vermont for the past 30 years, during which time I closely followed Bernie Sanders' political career that has led him from Burlington mayor to U.S. congressman to U.S. senator to presidential candidate.
Over those years, I have had a number of direct encounters with him. I can tell you from my experience that Bernie is (1) a very rude human being (which makes it hard to understand how he has been a successful politician) and (2) has never been part of the social-change movements here in Vermont, and has often been at odds with us, particularly when it concerned wars and other international issues--most recently, the savage Israeli attack on Gaza.
My first experience with Bernie came shortly after he was elected mayor, and I moved to Burlington partly on that basis. It came while I was participating in a Central American solidarity action at a General Electric Gatling Gun factory in the early 1980s in support of peasants in El Salvador and Nicaragua against whom the machine guns mounted on helicopters were being used.
One would have expected, and I certainly did at the time, that Bernie--back then, much more of an "avowed socialist" than he is today--would have supported our civil disobedience protests to rid the "Peoples Republic of Burlington" from this odious human rights blot. Burlington had a sister city in Nicaragua.
But Bernie did not. Instead, I vividly remember Bernie standing arms-folded alongside the right-wing union officials from the factory and the Burlington Police Department as we were being arrested. He falsely insinuated that we were "anti-worker," and he refused to have any serious political dialogue with us activists. Bernie next made cozy with the cops and their union, who endorsed him in his future mayoral elections.
To my knowledge, Bernie has never spoken out against U.S. imperialism, calling it for what it is--namely, the foundation of upper-class profits and middle-class privileges in the belly of the beast. Down through the years as a politician, he has waffled at best on opposing U.S. wars against the developing world and other people who are deviating from what our rulers want. To his credit, Bernie did vote against the Iraq wars (though this was not a particularly courageous stand to take given how many other members of Congress did the same), but he has not consistently voted against the military funding legislation that made these wars possible.
Moreover, back in 1999, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Bill Clinton's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. At that time, I was a member of a group of angry and upset peace activists, including Dave Dellinger, who held a sit-in at Bernie's Burlington office and were arrested after Bernie refused to speak with us. At that same time, one of Bernie's Washington staff, the labor historian and activist Jeremy Brecher, wrote a stinging open letter explaining why he could not continue to work for and represent a politician who would take that kind of pro-war position.
In the last couple of years, a huge battle has taken place in Burlington and surrounding towns over the Pentagon's plan to station the new F-35 warplane boondoggle at the Burlington Airport. A large and diverse movement came together to oppose it, based on everything from the noise level for those who have to live under its takeoff to its contribution to militarism and global warming. Did Bernie stand with the people's movement? No, he has supported the F-35 to the hilt, standing instead with the area's military types.
Last fall, when members of Code Pink and Occupy confronted him about his failure to oppose Israel's attack on the Gaza civilian population, Bernie took an evasive liberal position, criticizing the Palestinians who were resisting as much or more than the Zionists. He then called the police on us.
Yes, I will freely admit that Bernie can talk a good talk about economic inequities and the need to redress them. He's definitely on the mark there. An Occupier can agree. While never much of an environmentalist, he has even added a bit about global warming to the end of his standard populist stump speech. (When I knew him as Burlington's mayor, he was all in favor of letting developers take over the public lands on Burlington waterfront--which fortunately was stopped due to actions by Green activists with whom he could never get along.) However, is that enough?
In my view, we need to be clear--especially if we are socialists--about the strong linkages between what capitalism does overseas and here at home, and we need to stand firmly in solidarity with all of those people who are opposing U.S. imperialism and call for no more military spending that is being used to kill and repress them. I will certainly not waste my vote on a politician who does not take that stand.
As importantly, we need to be building revolutionary movements to take power away from the ruling class, not campaigning for politicians who invariably let us down with their promises of reforms.
Jay Moore, Marshfield, Vermont
Sanders won't lead us to the promised land
RECENTLY, SOCIALISTWORKER.ORG printed several letters written by readers taking issue with the paper's pessimism around the Bernie Sanders campaign. It is extremely important to have a debate about such topics. Electoral politics is, for many in the U.S., not simply the means to an end, but the end in itself: elect the right people, and everything else will shake out. Socialist Alternative even put out a statement that I am sure will inspire debate from folks both to the left and right of them.
Though the Sanders campaign features language that is encouraging and rarely heard on U.S. campaign trails, I share the paper's view of the campaign as a whole.
What is troubling to me is the dominance of two arguments that can frequently be found in close proximity to each other, and which were similarly lobbed at the paper during the recent Jesus "Chuy" Garcia vs. Rahm Emanuel mayoral campaign in Chicago. The first argument suggests that by not endorsing or working with major party candidates, we are doomed to irrelevance and insularity. The second argument suggests that by ignoring major candidates (or electoral politics as a whole), socialists are pushing an "all or nothing" agenda, quibbling that candidates are not "perfect socialists."
The "relevance" argument, in particular, strikes me as odd. Relevance--as a concept--does not necessarily guarantee any level of success. Hillary Clinton is incredibly relevant, yet I doubt most of the readers who wrote in to defend the Sanders campaign would say she is successful at combating any major social injustice, or on any issues about which they care.
The question a revolutionary party must face certainly involves relevance--the message must resonate with masses of people--but it is predominantly about success: Will our strategy work? It is hard to say that throwing support behind a candidate who will be gobbled up into a capitalist machine in the best-case scenario is the bridge a successful revolution must cross.
Relevance--or visibility or prominence--does not actually guarantee any progress in the project of liberation. To be clear, that is our project: a complete liberation of the oppressed from under the hands of capitalist exploitation in all its forms.
This brings me to the second argument. The "all or nothing" attack misses a fundamental point held within our interpretation of socialism. We are not looking for a perfect candidate; we believe that no candidate can lead a genuine socialist revolution. We instead seek to break (and break with) the idea that the proper candidates will get the job done, and instead build a consciousness centered on the people being their own mechanism for liberation. When we know the end in advance, why should an organization waste precious resources on a campaign destined, only to be processed into fuel for the Democratic machine?
Sanders' ideas are well meaning, and I believe it is at least possible that he will bring some progressive views into the mainstream of the campaigns that are rarely seen there. His ideas could, in theory, open up new political possibilities for people never exposed to or scared off by socialism.
I also understand the desperation. As neoliberalism tightens its grip around the necks of workers, as it trashes the environment, and as it systematically murders and displaces those it finds undesirable all over the world for the enriching of a few, people understandably look for glimmers of hope wherever they can be found.
Those glimmers of hope exist, but not in the Sanders campaign. They are in the indigenous people fighting the Keystone XL pipeline; they are in tens of thousands of Black youth building a radical movement of their own; and they are in the radicalization of people, slowly but certainly, realizing that capitalism has succeeded for thousands but failed for billions. Sanders' campaign--even though it might feel refreshing and unique--will end up on the same funeral pyre the Democrats erect for progress every few years.
Ashley Smith's original article stated that Sanders has a portrait of Eugene V. Debs in his office. Sanders should thus know better than anyone how Debs felt: "I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out."
Allen Arthur, New York City