Inside out or outside in?

April 7, 2016

Should socialists follow Bernie Sanders into the Democratic Party and participate in his campaign for the nomination? Todd Chretien looks at what history can tell us.

AFTER BERNIE Sanders' decisive win over Hillary Clinton in the Wisconsin primary last Tuesday, his victory speech was a no-holds-barred defense of free public education, universal health care, the union movement, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, equal pay for women and the need to save the planet from corporate-sponsored climate change.

Sanders' decision to deliver that speech in Laramie, Wyoming, not only indicated confidence that he would win the Wyoming caucuses this Saturday--which would extend his recent primary record to eight wins in the last nine contests--but it was also a powerful recognition of the struggle for LGBT equality and the mass protests in 1998 against the torture and murder of gay university student Matthew Shepard just outside Laramie.

Sanders is still a long shot to win the Democrats' presidential nomination, but he has done far better than almost anyone imagined he would. Somehow, Sanders, who describes himself as a democratic socialist, is still threatening the coronation of Hillary Clinton, who has been considered the Democratic Party's inevitable candidate in 2016 since even before the last ballots were counted in 2012 to give Barack Obama his re-election victory.

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders

For three decades, Hillary Clinton and her husband Bill have been among the most aggressive advocates of committing the Democrats to neoliberal economics, an aggressive foreign policy, tough-on-crime measures and mass incarceration, and all the other policies associated with the rightward shift of the party in particular and U.S. politics in general.

But that agenda, carried out by Democrats and Republicans alike for more than 30 years, has produced growing discontent and anger, which has burst out in various forms, especially since the Great Recession of 2008-09--and now even within the Democratic Party itself. This raises important questions for socialists.

THIS ISN'T the first time the Democrats have faced such a challenge. Throughout its history, the party has demonstrated an impressive capacity for absorbing more dangerous and better-organized opponents than Sanders.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt succeeded in capturing the support of the rebellious Congress of Industrial Organizations, then in the midst of winning unionization in basic industry, and even of the powerful Communist Party, whose tens of thousands of members played a central role in organizing the most important working-class upsurge in U.S. history. By the end of the decade, the threat of a labor party forming to the left of the Democrats was headed off.

Perhaps even more remarkably, in the 1960s, the Democrats--hitherto the party of white supremacy in the South--opened its doors to the civil rights movement, while jettisoning the bulk of the racist Dixiecrats. Within a period of years, Black political leaders had become a powerful force inside the Democratic Party--but firmly inside.

Representing a closer comparison to the Sanders upsurge today, Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition challenges for the party's presidential nomination in the 1980s won nearly as many votes as Sanders has so far, and boasted a stronger on-the-ground organization. But nothing was left of the Rainbow after Jackson called on his supporters to back the Democratic candidates for president in 1984 and 1988.

In each case, socialists and other revolutionaries entered into the Democratic Party with the goal of taking it over and turning it into a people's party to fight for reforms on a path toward socialism--or at least of pursuing an "inside-outside" strategy to pressure the Democrats to defend a baseline of social progress.

The left could point to at least some short-term gains from each of these eras. There was, of course, union recognition and New Deal reforms in the 1930s, and Black voter enfranchisement and civil rights legislation in the 1960s. The Jackson challenge at least confirmed the position of Black Democrats within the party, though it failed to stop the party's rightward shift.

But there was a price to pay each time. The task of building a genuine working-class party, one not controlled by Corporate America and the rich, was postponed again and again, while the left-wing leaders of these different eras of struggle became comfortable with their new positions within the party structure.

This experience gave rise to a hard-earned lesson: Radicals don't change the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party changes them.

WHAT DOES this history tell us about how socialists should approach the Sanders campaign today?

Sanders himself has stated that he wants to revitalize the Democratic Party and push it back into a more liberal phase. But again, looking back at the party's history, even when and where the liberal wing has predominated, there are strict limits to the sort of reforms the Democrats will deliver.

Take a current example: In California, after nearly 40 years of enthusiastic support for building prisons, Gov. Jerry Brown has decided that the process has gone a bit too far, and that he supports tepid sentencing reforms. But he has done nothing whatsoever to curb the powers of police in California, who are killing people, disproportionately people of color, at a rate of more than 200 a year.

Even more recently, Brown decided to support a $15 an hour minimum wage--he signed legislation this week for a long phased-in increase. But this goes hand in hand with his drive to cut pensions for state workers--a trend that is no different in blue-state California than in more conservative areas of the country.

The U.S. political system, including its liberal wing in the form of the Democrats, is historically flexible within certain limits imposed by capitalism. Often enough, those limits are shaped by what sorts of reforms are possible without affecting profits--at least not too much.

So in times of crisis and recession, political leaders dish out cuts (public education, for example, suffered devastating austerity in California between 2008 and 2012), and in better times, when the system can afford a bit more, the cuts are partially restored (as Brown is doing now), though usually only partially.

The problem is that as long as profitability for capitalists determines the extent of reform, we will remain hostage to the ups and downs of the business cycle.

What sort of movements do we need to replace that limit of profitability as the touchstone of public policy with a priority on meeting human and ecological needs before profit? And what political principles, strategies and tactics are needed for these movements to succeed?

FOR THE vast majority of the millions of people energized by the Sanders campaign, these questions are only now coming into focus.

Hundreds of thousands of people are flocking to Sanders rallies, tens of thousands are volunteering to work on his campaign, and millions are donating to and voting for their candidate. We know from election statistics that "the Bern" is taking hold strongly among young people--Sanders regularly wins 70 or 80 percent of the votes of people under 30. This is the core of the shift in public opinion polls of people seeing socialism more positively than capitalism.

Most of these people who are becoming part of the left are not experienced in politics or activism. There is a great diversity among them, demographically and ideologically, and they are mostly unorganized. But their emergence, with a positive identification with socialism, is very important.

In this respect, Sanders shouldn't be dismissed as a wholly accidental figure. Even if he didn't imagine himself becoming a radical youth icon at the age 74, Sanders' principled decision to identify himself with socialism now and over the course of decades, even at some political cost, is one key to his authenticity.

When I was a 19-year-old freshman college student in Vermont, I volunteered for Bernie in his first unsuccessful campaign for Congress because I wanted to see a socialist elected to office. And it was Sanders who convinced me to vote for the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Seeing a real-live socialist speak was an inspiration politically. But at the same time, Sanders telling me to vote for the guy in the tank--Dukakis made a fool of himself dressing up in soldiers' gear and riding around in a tank--was confusing. He and Dukakis didn't seem to share much in common.

In the months to come, a large number of young people will do more than vote for Sanders. They will think, debate, read and take action, many of them volunteering in his campaign, and many joining in protests against climate change, police brutality or sexual violence. Many will consider how socialism might be related to action.

Along the way, they will encounter different voices offering various points of view, including those identifying as socialists. Not without reason, the loudest voice will be Sanders himself. And he will try to convince them that the path toward socialism lies with reforming and revitalizing the Democratic Party.

THERE WILL also be another--and not the only--socialist voice, with nowhere near the prominence: revolutionary socialists, individuals and members of organizations, who in one way or another, have fought long and hard in defense of Eugene V. Debs' view that the Democratic Party is an impediment that must be overcome if workers are ever to achieve socialism.

But this camp, too, has different views. One part, while sticking to Debs' political analysis of the Democrats as a capitalist party that socialists have no business joining, has made a tactical decision to follow Sanders into the party, by joining his campaign and participating in its activities within the framework of the nomination race.

The clearest expression of this current is the group Socialist Alternative (SA). SA gained prominence with its successful campaign in 2013 to get its candidate Kshama Sawant elected to the Seattle City Council as an open socialist, independent of the Democrats. The group has, before and since, played a role in various campaigns, particularly helping to popularize the Fight for 15.

However, nearly a year ago, SA decided to support Sanders' campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, even after he made it clear that he was abandoning his former independent label and running as a Democrat--and that he would support the eventual Democratic nominee, no matter who it was, against any left-wing independent challenge. Recently, SA has established the #Movement4Bernie, while claiming to be "independent" of the campaign itself.

The problem with the SA approach is that when you tell people to vote for Sanders and organize a "movement" in support of him, almost everyone you reach will naturally conclude that you're doing so because you support Sanders' stated strategy of reforming the Democratic Party.

Even if you say you think workers need a new party to the left of the Democrats, as Sawant did when she spoke at the Sanders rally in Seattle, you're throwing your weight behind a candidate who says we don't need a new party.

Recently, SA published an article in its newspaper titled "Bernie, Time for a Jail Break." It reads, in part:

So far, Bernie Sanders' campaign has juggled the contradiction of running for a pro-working-class program in a Wall Street-dominated party. Until now, the dominant feature within that contradiction has been an uprising of a new generation against the corporate politicians. A new generation is searching for a political alternative. If Sanders runs just to push Clinton to the left, his campaign will sooner rather than later turn into a cover for the Democratic Party machine. The dominant feature of his campaign would turn into its opposite; from encouraging revolt, to co-opting and channeling millions of his energetic supporters into the corporate campaign of Clinton. It would also demoralize many of the best people.

In fact, it is not Sanders who has "juggled the contradiction." He has remained completely consistent about the aim of his campaign, and his future commitment in the November election if he doesn't win the nomination. On the other hand, SA itself has more than juggled a contradiction. It has violated its own stated principle of remaining independent of the Democrats.

Worse yet, the same article continues:

Socialist Alternative has outlined how Bernie could run [as a third-party candidate, against both Clinton and the eventual Republican nominee] all through November without ignoring the fears about Trump and the huge pressure to rally behind Clinton, see our article from March 17.

That March 17 article refers to SA's call for Sanders to run as an independent in November, but with a so-called "safe-state" strategy of only placing his name on the ballot in states where his presence wouldn't affect the outcome--that is, where Sanders wouldn't win votes that Clinton needed to defeat the Republican.

This is precisely the strategy that inflicted nearly mortal damage on the Green Party in the 2004 election. Rather than backing the independent campaign of Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo, the Greens picked a political unknown as their presidential candidate and then followed the "safe-state" strategy to prove to the Democrats that they meant no harm.

What the Greens who supported this strategy really proved is that they weren't committed to genuine political independence. After the unprecedented success of Nader's 2000 campaign, the Greens were reduced to being subordinate to the needs of the Democratic Party. They have yet to recover as a national party.

SA's proposal to begin a "Sanders Party" on this basis--something Sanders himself has not shown the slightest inkling of interest in anyway--would only repeat the fiasco.

OTHER REVOLUTIONARY socialists are approaching the Sanders campaign and its relationship to the Democratic Party and its publisher, the International Socialist Organization, are among them.

We believe that the left can acknowledge and engage with the massive audience that Sanders is reaching without participating in his campaign within the confines of the status quo system--by stating honestly that we believe the party itself can't be reformed or revitalized.

Simultaneously, we propose to work in unity with Sanders supporters around initiatives and actions outside the electoral arena--organizing against police brutality, in support of the Chicago teachers struggle, building the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israeli apartheid (which Sanders unfortunately opposes). And we participate in organizing forums, debates, exchanges and dialogues with Sanders supporters and others on the left in unions, on campuses and in our communities.

No one conversation, article, demonstration or campaign is going to settle these questions. Our support, for example, for Jill Stein's Green Party presidential campaign, which is explicitly against a safe-state strategy, is only part of what should be understood as a much larger project.

A real "revolution"--since that's the term Sanders uses himself--is going to require more than voting for progressive politicians and even building loosely connected social movements. It will require an organized revolutionary socialist movement, with many tens of thousands of workers and students who can reverse the historical pull of social struggles into the Democratic Party. Not just individuals, but whole unions, movements, and left organizations must be won away from the Democrats to a mass, left alternative.

That won't be accomplished in a year or two years or four years. It will be a decades-long, complex struggle. But we need to find a way now to train expert fighters for that project, and we can't put off getting started for another election.

"The Bern" is an inspiring confirmation of the building anger against the consequences of capitalism's oppression and injustice. But if we want to build a more thorough and powerful socialist movement over the long term, those of us who have come to the conclusion that it can't be built inside the Democratic Party can't afford to wander back in.

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