Is Sanders making a “political revolution”?

September 3, 2015

Todd Chretien looks at the strengths of Sanders' case against Corporate America and his views on socialism--and considers what his decision to run as a Democrat means.

BERNIE SANDERS' bid to unseat Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party's heir apparent to the White House has shaken up election season and given a voice to millions of people who have had it with a political system wholly owned by the 1 Percent.

It is very important for the left that Sanders has injected the question of socialism into the mainstream political discussion. His run also raises questions that the left needs to discuss and confront, including the main contradiction of his campaign: The independent senator from Vermont is running for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, which is also owned by the 1 Percent--and he has repeatedly promised to support whoever the party's nominee is, even Clinton, rather than an independent left-wing campaign for president.

Sanders' popularity has been one of the main political stories of the summer. More than 100,000 people have crammed into rallies from Portland, Maine, to Los Angeles to cheer him on. "The reason we're doing so well in this campaign," Sanders told the crowd in LA, "is we're telling the truth."

Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail
Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail

That truth is the radical message of the 99 Percent, revived from the heyday of Occupy Wall Street. "Today," reads Sanders' campaign website, "we live in the richest country in the history of the world, but that reality means little because much of that wealth is controlled by a tiny handful of individuals."

Sanders is making an issue out of raising the wages of the lowest-paid workers, disproportionately women, the young, and people of color. "The current federal minimum wage is starvation pay and must become a living wage. We must increase it to $15 an hour over the next several years," his campaign states. That effort, Sanders says, also has to include targeting the sexist wage gap. "We must also establish equal pay for women. It's unconscionable that women earn less than men for performing the same work."

Early in his campaign, Sanders stumbled badly in not forthrightly denouncing police brutality, but he has gotten more in step with the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer. His campaign website's "Racial Justice" section reads, in part: "Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Samuel DuBose. We know their names. Each of them died unarmed at the hands of police officers or in police custody. The chants are growing louder. People are angry and they have a right to be angry."

Although not perfect, he supports eight out of 10 of the demands made by Campaign Zero to oppose police brutality, more than any other candidate among the Democrats and Republicans.

Sanders is pushing other urgent issues, such as climate change and campaign finance, into the spotlight. And to top it off, he proudly declares himself a socialist, pointing to the great revolutionary and leader of the early 20th century Socialist Party Eugene Debs as his hero.

THE ENTHUSIASM for Sanders--which his supporters refer to as "the Bern"--should come as no surprise, given the steady decline in living conditions for the vast majority of people in the U.S.

American capitalism has been turning up the heat on the working class for decades. The power of the labor movement has been broken, destroying millions of lives in the process--a mere 11.2 percent of U.S. workers now belong to a union, including just 6.6 percent of private-sector workers.

Student debt is out of control, sticking nearly 40 million students with a trillion dollars in debt and decades of loan payments. Obamacare filled in a few potholes, but remained committed to the corporate health care system that protects insurance company and Big Pharma profits.

Obama has replaced--for the moment--U.S. boots on the ground with death from drones in the sky, while backing reactionaries around the Middle East, from fully funding the Saudi Arabian invasion of Yemen, to supporting the Egyptian generals' counterrevolution and Israel's never-ending war on the Palestinian population.

Despite years of growing activism, police brutality against poor people of all races is getting worse--the disproportionate targeting of young Black men, women and transgender people is escalating. And any time large numbers of people take it to the streets to protest, occupy or strike, they are met with a united front of militarized police and a New Jim Crow judicial system.

Sanders' popularity is the result of his giving voice to the discontent with this 21st-century version of what Malcolm X called the "American nightmare." His campaign isn't the only sign of protest: There is the Black Lives Matter movement, System Change Not Climate Change mobilizations planned for this fall and the Fight for 15 struggles of low-wage workers, to name a few.

Internationally, mass protests and anti-austerity or anti-capitalist electoral campaigns have come together in mutually reinforcing, if complex and contradictory, ways; including SYRIZA (and now Popular Unity) in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the Left and Workers Front in Argentina, Jeremy Corbyn's left-wing campaign to lead the Labour Party in Britain, and an array of fights in Ireland, Scotland and South Africa.

All this raises big questions about how to understand Sanders' campaign, his decision to run within the decidedly pro-capitalist and pro-austerity Democratic Party--and what can be done to transform Sanders' slogan of a "political revolution" into a sustained movement that doesn't live and die with Sanders as an individual.

ONE OF the worst things about American elections is the notion that politics is really about supporting this or that politician as an individual--which usually means pretending they are above reproach. The reality is that, despite Sanders' many strong progressive positions, there are several issues on which his supporters should hold him accountable.

In 2014, Sanders supported the unanimous U.S. Senate resolution backing Israel's brutal bombing and invasion of Gaza, which killed more than 2,000 Palestinians. After the September 11 attacks in 2001, Sanders voted in favor of George Bush's Authorization of Use of Force resolution that was used to launch the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan. Back in 1994, Sanders voted in favor of Bill Clinton's crime bill, one of the central pillars of the system of police brutality, racially biased sentencing laws and mass incarceration.

So Sanders has participated in digging some of very holes that he now says he can help us climb out of.

And these far-from-radical stances aren't all in past either. For example, Sanders stunned progressives last weekend with his statement, in an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, that he wouldn't end the U.S. military's drone war in the Middle East and elsewhere. "What you can argue is that there are times and places where drone attacks have been effective," he said.

SANDERS' DECISION to take these positions wasn't accidental, nor are they examples of him simply "selling out" or "pandering." Rather, they flow from his strongly held political beliefs and his particular vision of socialism.

In 2006, Sanders described to Democracy Now! what socialism meant to him:

I think it means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that, as a right of citizenship, all of our people have health care; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality child care, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That's all it means.

To achieve these goals, Sanders looks to the Scandinavian version of what is usually called "social democracy"--building a strong welfare state through gradual reform and developing a mixed economy where the state and public ownership plays a larger role, but big business remains powerful.

Historically, this reformist vision of socialism has more in common with the most conservative elements in the Socialist Party, such as congressman Victor Berger, than it has with Eugene Debs' politics.

In the U.S. context, any attempt to come to some sort of accommodation with the structures of American capitalism and its state means hoping to find common ground with a system that is not only built on the ruthless exploitation of all working-class people, but also relies on institutional racism at home and permanent war abroad.

This political point of view, and not any personal corruption, is what has led Sanders in the past to take the positions described above. He would do better to look to the preamble to the constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World, which Debs himself helped to found in 1905:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes, a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system and live in harmony with the Earth.

BY THEMSELVES, these positions wouldn't necessarily stop a group like the International Socialist Organization (ISO) from supporting Sanders if we believed the overall thrust of his campaign was to create an ongoing political alternative to the two-party status quo. In that case, we might well join the Sanders campaign, while publicly putting forward our disagreements.

The ISO disagreed with Ralph Nader on certain questions, but we supported his independent presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004 because they were part of building up the global justice and antiwar movements and helping them start to break free from the control exerted by the Democratic Party.

But the biggest difference is that Sanders is running in the Democratic Party. As Ashley Smith wrote for Socialist Worker:

Sanders' decision to jump into Democratic Party presidential politics represents a decisive break from the man he calls his hero: Eugene V. Debs. Debs spent his whole life building the Socialist Party as an alternative to the two capitalist parties. Year in and year out, he insisted that "[t]he differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties involve no issue, no principle in which the working class have any interest."

Debs understood that his call for working-class people to break with the two capitalist parties meant supporting a political alternative that might not win--but he believed this was a necessary challenge to a two-party system that offered nothing to workers. "I'd rather vote for something I want and not get it," Debs once wrote, "than vote for something I don't want and get it."

We've seen the left involve itself with the Democrats time and again: From the Communist Party's decision to support Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 (the CP has been trapped inside the Democrats for the last 80 years!) to Students for a Democratic Society's "Half the Way with LJB" endorsement of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (Johnson sent 500,000 troops to Vietnam shortly after winning the election); to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition primary campaigns in 1984 and 1988 (which pulled almost all of the 1960s and 1970s radical left into the Democrats).

That brings us back to Sanders, who has supported the Democratic presidential candidate for many elections now, and not any of the left-wing independent campaigns, like Nader's in 2000 and 2004. Rather than pulling the Democrats to the left, entering the party requires an accommodation to the big money and elite politicians who really own and control it.

Sanders has repeatedly promised that no matter what, he will support "the eventual Democratic nominee"--and the New York Times reported in early September that he will soon sign a joint fundraising agreement with Hillary Clinton to raise money for that "eventual" nominee.

In all likelihood, Sanders will be asking all the millions who back him now precisely because he is not Hillary Clinton to get behind her as the lesser evil sometime next spring or summer.

SO WHAT would Eugene Debs do about the campaign of a man who says he reveres him as a hero?

Debs would no doubt extend a hand in friendship to the millions of ordinary working-class people who are looking to Sanders. The vast majority of Sanders enthusiasts are sick of complacency and seeking out ways to join in the fight to change the world. To paraphrase Debs, "They want to vote for something they want."

But if Sanders will end up asking them to vote for something they don't want, what are our options?

Some genuinely radical socialists, such as those in and around Jacobin magazine, and organizations like Socialist Alternative and Solidarity, argue that radicals need to find ways to join in the Sanders campaign.

The ISO disagrees with this because, after all, the goal of the Sanders campaign is to win as many votes as possible inside the Democratic Party, a party revolutionaries cannot support. Instead, we believe we should be up-front with his supporters and engage in a discussion about why Sanders, who is asking so many of the right questions, has pledged allegiance to a party that has all the wrong answers.

And far from waiting around passively, we should use the current political atmosphere to build an alternative. There is a significant layer of workers and students, especially activists, who have learned the painful lessons of how the Democratic Party uses and abuses the left. These people can find ways now--for instance, Jill Stein is running to be the Green Party presidential candidate, and on the local level, socialist Kshama Sawant is up for re-election to the Seattle City Council this November--to begin posing a clear alternative in the 2016 elections.

From Greece to Scotland to Argentina, social movements and political campaigns have proven that the old parties of austerity can be challenged by new, more radical ones. Breaking out of the old straightjackets can open up the potential for deeper changes than will ever be permitted within the limits of the U.S. two-party system.

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