Why is socialism in the spotlight?

April 5, 2016

The Sanders campaign is generating enthusiasm for a socialist alternative to the status quo, but achieving real change will require much more than elections.

A SPECTER is haunting the opinion pages of the U.S. media--the specter of socialism, as commentators and columnists struggle to explain the unexpected popularity of Bernie Sanders' campaign for president.

They express the same confused exasperation with Democratic primary voters as Hillary Clinton and her supporters among the Democratic Party leadership. Like former Rep. Barney Frank, who, in an interview with Slate.com, not only dismissed Sanders as having "little to show" for his 25 years in Congress, but sneered at his supporters for having "a lot of time on their hands" and "unrealistic" ideas about the political system.

Frank's annoyance with Democratic voters for daring to have different opinions than the party elite is increasingly coming out in Clinton herself, despite her public relations strategy of posing as the "positive" candidate. The latest case in point: Clinton's verbal smackdown of a Greenpeace activist who asked during a campaign appearance if Clinton would reject contributions from the fossil fuel industry.

Supporters cheer Bernie Sanders at a campaign event in Phoenix
Supporters cheer Bernie Sanders at a campaign event in Phoenix (Gage Skidmore)

Actually, Clinton's real problem isn't "the Sanders campaign lying about me," as she complained when confronted by the activist, but her own campaign telling the truth about what she stands for--or, in reality, stands against. Clinton's slogan, in contrast to Barack Obama's eight years ago, might as well be "No, we can't": No to single-payer health care, no to free college tuition, no to taking on Wall Street, and the list goes on and on.

The Democratic leadership's bewilderment and bitterness will only increase if Sanders can win the Wisconsin primary on April 5, after starting from well behind in the opinion polls.

Though Clinton is still ahead in the overall delegate count that will determine the nomination--and far ahead when the Democratic Party's undemocratic "superdelegates" are taken into account--it's a testament to the popularity of Sanders' anti-corporate, pro-labor message that he continues to rack up votes and primary victories, in defiance of the leaders of the so-called "party of the people" uniting behind Clinton.

HILLARY CLINTON and the Washington Post may be shocked and surprised that socialism is no longer a dirty word--and that redbaiting isn't as effective with voters as it used to be. But for anyone who has been paying attention to the growing dissatisfaction with the status quo--economic, political and social--it makes a lot of sense.

Granted, the closest we've come to "socialism" in the context of mainstream politics recently was the half-baked identification of Barack Obama as a red, back at the start of his presidency when his proposal of a one-time economic stimulus package in response to the Great Recession prompted headlines like Newsweek's cover "We are all socialists now." That moment came and went fast, and we've been living in the era of austerity ever since.

Socialism according to Sanders is more the real thing, though he belongs to a particular current of socialism with a vision limited mainly to moderate reforms achieved by working within the system. And that's leaving aside the significant aspects of Sanders' own politics, like his embrace of imperialism, that aren't radical at all.

It's a welcome development for the U.S. left to engage with a much wider audience of people interested in socialism, and Sanders is definitely the immediate cause. But we should also remember that the political discontent and class anger that underlie Sanders' popularity didn't begin with his campaign.

Sanders himself is the beneficiary of a radicalization driven by the economic upheavals of the Great Recession and after, and especially the consequences of growing inequality and the social crisis afflicting the have-nots.

The most obvious concrete expression of this radicalization in recent years was the Occupy movement, with its popularization of the idea that the rule of the 1 Percent came at the expense of the 99 Percent.

But Occupy had plenty of ancestors, immediate and distant--both international, with the Arab Spring and the "movement of the squares" in Europe, and at home, including the uprising in Wisconsin, the movement for marriage equality and the immigrant rights mega-marches 10 years ago this spring.

Since Occupy, the eruption of protest against the epidemic of racist police murder has given another form to the discontent--driven by not only furious outrage at individual cases of violence, but also a growing recognition that a more fundamental transformation will be necessary to truly make Black lives matter.

These struggles and movements contributed in various ways, large and small, to the broader Sanders phenomenon: the deep identification with class issues; the perception that the political system is unalterably corrupt; a recognition of the need for systemic change; above all, the urgency of doing something about it.

In turn, the battles to come--while Election 2016 is still underway and after--will have a different shape because of the enthusiastic response to the Sanders campaign, his identification with socialism, and the confidence the campaign inspires in people who want to see real change.

THE SANDERS campaign has caught fire by connecting with the discontent with Corporate America and the two-party system, including the liberal wing of the U.S. political establishment, in the form of the Democratic Party.

But by running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders is, by definition, mobilizing that discontent for a battle within the confines of the status quo.

This isn't so evident during the current stage of the election, while Clinton and Sanders are still fighting for votes in the remaining primaries. If anything, Sanders' criticisms of Clinton have grown shaper over the course of the year. But at some point, the nomination race will be decided, and the consequences of Sanders running as a Democrat will become clear, one way or another.

Let's imagine that Sanders defies the very, very, very long odds against him and wins the Democratic presidential nomination. The hard fact is he would become the leader of a party that is institutionally opposed to everything significant about his political agenda. On any issue where he stands to the left of Hillary Clinton and the party establishment, he would be fighting an uphill battle to overcome opposition among Democrats, not just Republicans.

This wouldn't be because the Democratic establishment are all sore losers. Though it claims to speak for working people and represent liberal attitudes, the Democratic Party serves Wall Street and Corporate America, before all else. They would direct the party's response to Sanders, not his millions of supporters.

So if Sanders did become president and, for example, tried to achieve a single-payer health care system, as he has promised, a majority of members of Congress from his own party--beholden to campaign contributions and all the lobbying in between elections from the medical-pharmaceutical-insurance complex--would line up to stab him in the back.

And that's the hypothetical scenario if Sanders somehow won the nomination. The far more likely outcome is that Hillary Clinton wins, which will lead to a simple question: Will Sanders call on his supporters to vote for a candidate who represents the status quo he says he wants to overturn?

Though he has continued to defy calls to curb his criticisms of Clinton during the primaries, everything we know about Sanders suggests that, if Clinton becomes the nominee, he will join the chorus calling for unity behind the "lesser evil" to defeat the Republican "greater evil."

Sanders has said as much throughout the campaign, but if there's still any doubt, his record of supporting the Democratic candidate for president, even when there is an independent left-wing option, goes back decades.

In 2004, for example, Sanders not only endorsed the Democratic nominee John Kerry, but vowed to "run around this country and do everything I can to dissuade people from voting for Ralph Nader"--the independent candidate whose anti-corporate platform was a lot closer to Sanders' own.

Socialist Worker believes that it is important to give a different answer. The left should withstand the pressure to "vote against" the Republicans if that means voting for the Democrats.

A vote for the "lesser evil" to stop the "greater evil" not only postpones any progress toward a genuinely left-wing agenda, but it doesn't even stop the "greater evil." As we wrote last month:

Think about all the expectations invested in Barack Obama when he ran for president in 2008, with his promise to bring fundamental changes to Washington after eight long years of Bush and the Republicans.

And what was the result? Obama adopted the Bush administration's mega-bailout of Wall Street after the 2008 financial crash, while stiffing homeowners facing foreclosure. He continued Bush's "war on terror," with a few changes in tactics and strategy. He deported more undocumented immigrants in a shorter time than Bush managed. He accelerated the corporate school deform drive.

That's why this newspaper will support a left-wing alternative to the presidential candidates of the two mainstream parties, with no illusion that it can win. Our endorsement of the Green Party presidential campaign of Jill Stein is a protest vote against the two-party system--and a modest attempt to advance the project of organizing a future alternative outside the Democratic Party.

AT THE same time, we will keep our sights set beyond the elections. Electoral campaigns have long been an activity of the socialist movement, but they are only one aspect.

Our tradition defines socialism as the "self-emancipation of the working class," to return to Karl Marx's words. That means we look to mass protests, strikes and workers' struggles, social movements and direct action, because these give confidence and experience to masses of people to look to their own power to win change.

Elections shouldn't be seen as separate from struggle. The ideas put forward by Sanders and his campaign, the enthusiasm they have generated, the return of socialism to political discussion--all these can inspire people to extend their political commitment beyond casting a ballot.

The protest in Chicago last month against racist billionaire Donald Trump that forced him to cancel his campaign rally is one example. Many of the demonstrators identified as Sanders supporters. But opposition to Trump's racist message went beyond one politician's campaign.

The anti-Trump protest was Black, immigrant, Muslim, white, women and men, straight and LGBT--all standing together against bigotry and reaction. That kind of resistance has to continue, no matter who wins the 2016 election.

The Democratic Party will pull in the opposite direction. Its goal, especially at election time, is to channel energy and initiative away from mobilizing struggles at the grassroots--and into canvassing for candidates, raising money, phone banking and the like.

Liberal voices insist that this is "political realism"--that if you want to accomplish something concrete, you have to work inside the system.

History teaches a different lesson. Think of the political rights and social programs we value--Social Security, voting rights and anti-discrimination policies, reproductive rights, environment protections and marriage equality, to name a few. They were the result, most of all, of protest and pressure from outside the political system.

As the people's historian Howard Zinn said in a speech in 2009:

We must not put ourselves in the position of looking at the world from [the politicians'] eyes and say, "Well, we have to compromise, we have to do this for political reasons." We have to speak our minds.

This is the position that the abolitionists were in before the Civil War...Lincoln didn't believe that his first priority was abolishing slavery. But the anti-slavery movement did, and the abolitionists said, "We're not going to put ourselves in Lincoln's position. We are going to express our own position, and we are going to express it so powerfully that Lincoln will have to listen to us."

And the anti-slavery movement grew large enough and powerful enough that Lincoln had to listen. That's how we got the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments.

That's been the story of this country. Where progress has been made, wherever any kind of injustice has been overturned, it's been because people acted as citizens, and not as politicians. They didn't just moan. They worked, they acted, they organized, they rioted if necessary.

Whatever happens next, this year's presidential election won't even begin to resolve the disasters of capitalism that have given rise to an urgent desire for change. We need a left that can respond with new levels of resistance.

Socialists have many ways to contribute to that project, right here and right now. We can put forward our own vision of socialism: a fundamentally different society from capitalism in which the working-class majority rules. We need to make the case for a left alternative in the elections, independent of the Democrats.

And we can build the resistance to injustice and oppression in all the struggles taking place throughout society--while election season is underway and long after.

Further Reading

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