Translating the Bern internationally

April 21, 2016

The Bernie Sanders campaign isn't alone among events in the United States capable of inspiring international solidarity. On February 15 and 16, 2003, nearly a million antiwar protesters marched against Bush's invasion of Iraq. On May 1, 2006, more than 3 million predominantly Latino workers effectively called the largest one-day strike in the nation's history to demand immigration reform. In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement found common cause with the Indignados in Spain, while Egyptian revolutionaries in Tahrir Square ordered pizza for workers and students sitting in at the Madison Capitol building. And in 2014, Palestinian activists offered advice to Ferguson, Missouri, protesters about how to best withstand the effects of tear gas.

But there is something noteworthy about hundreds of thousands of young people packing stadiums and parks to hear self-professed socialist Senator Bernie Sanders attack the millionaire and billionaire class and call for a political revolution. As Sanders wins 70 to 80 percent of Democratic and independent voters under the age of 25, socialism, it seems, has burst back onto the American scene with a force few could have predicted.

Socialist Worker's Todd Chretien examines how socialists around the world are making sense of the Bern.

IN RECENT years, socialists across the globe have offered their opinions about--and solidarity with--struggles from Greece to Venezuela. Today, the Sanders campaign has become a hot topic.

This can only be welcomed, as the discussion can play a critical educational role while building bridges between the elements of a new left in the United States and our international counterparts. In that spirit, I want to address three points Socialist Worker has argued are central to transforming this "moment" of enthusiasm for socialist ideas into an on-going "movement." In so doing, I will respond to certain positions adopted by international comrades.

1. Don't Underestimate the Stability of the Two-Party System

Many socialists around the world have recently seen neoliberal parties (be they conservative or social-democratic) challenged by rapidly growing left-wing alternatives. Just last year, the Labour Party was all but wiped out in Scotland by the Scottish National Party, SYRIZA displaced the long-ruling social-democratic PASOK party in Greece, and now Podemos is creating havoc in Spain. This has led some to believe the Democratic Party might be facing a similar fate. Speaking for the Committee for a Workers International (which is aligned with the U.S.-based Socialist Alternative), Tony Saunois represents this position in stark terms:

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders

The U.S. presidential election campaign represents a turning point in U.S. society and the struggles of the working class, the middle class, young people and all those exploited by capitalism. U.S. society is gripped by a mass politicization and rejection of, or mass opposition to, the established political parties and their leadership....The two party system in the U.S. is now disintegrating.

This is a classic example of "taking the second or the fifth month of pregnancy for the ninth," something that Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky warned "no one has yet done with impunity." Certainly, there is a kernel of truth here. A mass politicization has begun and Sanders is one expression of it, but the notion that the main bulwark of capitalist political power in the United States, the two-party system, is "disintegrating" badly misreads the balance of forces.

The sobering reality is that there are only two political parties in the United States who hold seats at the local, state or federal level. The tiny handful of exceptions (including Socialist Alternative's own Kshama Sawant in the Seattle city council, a few Green city officials in small cities here and the odd Libertarian there, etc.) only proves the rule.

Worse still, we don't simply happen to have only two parties in the U.S., but are, in fact, ruled by a two-party system. This means that proportional representation is strictly prohibited, millions of dollars are required to run for state and federal office, and congressional districts are bizarrely constructed (gerrymandered) to ensure the domination of either the Democrats or the Republicans.

Since the Civil War ended in 1865, each party has mutated to one degree or the other, providing the system with significant elasticity. The most famous case being the transformation of the Democratic Party from the party of the KKK in the South in the 1950s to the (supposed) party of civil rights in the 1960s. The large majority of the left joined the Democratic Party back then to fight so that something more than 1990s Clintonite neoliberalism might emerge from all this, but their efforts proved unsuccessful.

The two parties are often defined in opposition to each other, but they are, in fact, both fiercely loyal to what amounts to the most powerful political mutual defense treaty the world has ever seen. This system bends, but it has never broken.

Back in 2000, Democratic candidate Al Gore went so far as to sacrifice his own presidency on the altar of two-partyism, refusing to delegitimize the system in defense of his patently obvious victory in Florida. Even during the greatest period of working-class rebellion (between 1900 and 1948 when the Socialist and Communist parties at different times boasted 100,000 members), only a single Socialist Party member was ever elected to Congress.

Unfortunately, at least in electoral terms, this system is decidedly unlike many other countries where social movements in the streets have found a way to express themselves (not without difficulties and setbacks) at the ballot box. There is a way to fight this system (more on this later), but we must begin with a clear-headed appraisal of its strengths; minimizing the ruling class's political tools only disarms our side.

2. Left-Wing Inside/Out Strategies Lead from the Outside/In to the Democratic Party

Understandable excitement, especially as Sanders walks picket lines with 40,000 striking Verizon workers, has led some international observers to suspend their long-held opposition to voting for Democrats, at least temporarily.

I have questioned Socialist Alternative's wholesale support of Sanders' efforts to win the Democratic nomination elsewhere; however, their international co-thinkers are not alone in suggesting revolutionary socialists ought to consider backing Sanders.

In the wake of Sanders' April 5 primary win in Wisconsin, socialist author and activist Tariq Ali argued on Facebook that "Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Bernie, his victory would be a huge blow against all the enemies of the Left, so grandstanding at the moment is unhelpful... In these bad times, ANYTHING progressive needs to be pushed forward."

Writing for the British Socialist Workers Party's International Socialist Journal, Meghan Trudell concludes:

For the left, the staggering levels of support for an openly socialist candidate provide a fantastic opportunity to build on, broaden and unite activists involved in a range of social movements over support (however critical) for Sanders and opposition to Trump's racism and, in the process, to gain a hearing for revolutionary ideas on a scale not experienced since Seattle.

(Conversely, Charlie Kimber, writing in the SWP's weekly paper, also called Socialist Worker, seems to take the opposite tack, warning that Sanders campaign will only lead activists back into the Democratic Party.)

For its part, the editorial board of Salvage magazine supposes that:

[I]f the choice for president were Sanders versus Trump? Then notwithstanding our remorseless suspicion of the Democratic Party, against which we remain implacably opposed and for which we would never campaign, if this UK quarterly could vote, Salvage would seriously consider doing so for Sanders.

Meanwhile, there are others who, while not directly advocating a vote for Sanders, imply that the left must get involved in the Sanders campaign, one way or the other, in order to be relevant. Pedro Fuentes, a leading member of the Brazilian Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), writing in the publication of the Movement for Socialism (MES) warns:

Unfortunately, there is a section of the left--which considers Sanders to be a "bourgeois pig," or something similar to other alternatives on the left-wing of Democrat Party--who will argue by saying, "See? We were right [about Sanders], now join our organizations." This way of thinking only throws the baby with the bath water.

Loren Balhorn, writing on the Marx21 website in Germany, observes:

On the radical left, opinions about Sanders are divided: while some celebrate his successes, others see him as merely a rerun of Obama and criticize him for not standing independent of the Democratic Party...But this is a schematic view, and does not accurately represent the real situation...Thus, it comes down to the question of how socialists can support the [Sanders] campaign constructively, without giving up their independence.

And Democracia Socialista in Argentina published an article by American socialist Dan LaBotz critically counterpoising socialists who remain outside the Sanders campaign to those who wish to "find a way to approach the young people and union members who support Sanders as well as finding ways to work with these sectors, at least until the general elections" in November.

I don't believe there is any question of these comrades having changed their minds about the Democratic Party. For them, it remains, at base, a party of big American capital, a pillar of U.S. imperialism. Rather, the examples cited here express the sense that "something" might come of the Sanders campaign and a worry about missing the boat. Again, there is a kernel of truth to this point of view.

However, Sanders himself is unflinching about what this "something" must be. His stated goal is to revitalize the Democratic Party and he is serious about it. To his credit, he has helped spark a discussion about socialism and how to achieve it, but his politics must be contested. Just last week, Sanders stated on national television:

Look, as I said a million times, I think the idea of a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz presidency would be an unmitigated disaster for this country. I will do everything in my power and work as hard as I can to make sure that that does not happen. And if Secretary Clinton is the nominee, I will certainly support her.

Sanders is not trying to fool anyone. The question is: How can revolutionary socialists best convince a layer of his supporters they ought to disagree with Sanders on exactly this basic question? Revolutionaries jumping "in" now only limits the potential for newly radicalized socialists coming "out" later.

3. The Alternative: Argue for Political Independence and Work in United Fronts

Happily, there is a stronger alternative to being pulled, against our better historical judgment, into the Sanders campaign.

First, as everyone quoted here agrees, revolutionary socialists must find ways to build bridges to Sanders' supporters in order to discuss, engage and debate. Socialist Worker's decision to remain outside the Sanders campaign has, no doubt, alienated us from some people.

However, we have generally found a great willingness among those enthusiastic about Sanders to discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of running inside the Democratic Party. In fact, a significant layer of activists are already keenly attuned to the danger of the Democratic trap. Remaining clearly independent of the Sanders campaign does not hinder this discussion, it facilitates it.

Second, while taking advantage of openings when we are able, we should not prioritize electoral campaigns over other forms of political activity. The last 30 years (and especially the last 10) have seen myriad struggles rise and fall. It is at once the latest expression of growing anger (immigrants rights in 2006, LGBTQ and equal marriage struggles in 2009, Occupy Wall Street in 2011, the Chicago Teachers Strike in 2012, Black Lives Matter in 2014, etc.) and a novel advance in raising socialism as a systematic alternative to capitalism.

The point is not to privilege one mode of struggle or the other, but to understand them as a totality. Socialists must find ways to construct political vehicles capable of working in united fronts around specific issues (strike support, opposing police killings, raising the minimum wage, defending abortion rights, etc.) while doing the painstaking work of political education. We must help create a layer of cadre (hardcore political activists) who can organize a tough-minded alternative to the Democratic Party.

Until there is a much higher level of social and class struggle, any breaks to the left of the Democratic Party will be partial, often reversed, and hard fought. For instance, Ralph Nader running for the Green Party in 2000, won 2,700,000 votes, but the Democratic Party's counter-offensive (bound up with Gore's concession to Bush) devastated the Greens as a rising national vehicle, bringing many Green Party leaders back into the Democratic Party fold.

Third, having said that, Socialist Worker supports Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. Stein shares many of Sanders' best domestic proposals, while she opposes his frankly pro-imperial international policies--such as arguing that Saudi Arabia "take greater responsibility for the future of the Middle East," his antipathy to Venezuela's government, and his consistent commitment to guaranteeing Israel's "right to defend itself."

This leads me to consider the position held by the Argentine Socialist Workers Party (PTS, by its initials in Spanish). These comrades, in my view, rightly argue that revolutionary socialists should not endorse Sanders, but they wrongly insist it is a mistake to endorse the Stein campaign, even as a partial step toward challenging the two-party system. Instead, they sustain that the left should "run an independent class-conscious presidential campaign" as these comrades have attempted to do with the Left and Workers Front (FIT) in Argentina.

Notwithstanding their considerable success (even if it is not without criticisms from other important forces on the left in Argentina), the PTS's position translates to little more than abstract propaganda at this point in time in the United States. The concrete shape of the fight to come, especially in the wake of Trump and Clinton's decisive wins in the New York primary, will be a lesser-evil campaign where Sanders supporters will be relentlessly pressured to line up behind Clinton against Trump (or Cruz). In that fight, Stein's campaign will be vilified with "A vote for Stein is a vote for Trump!" as the liberals' rallying cry.

In that situation, socialists should (critically) pick a side by advocating a vote for the only pro-working-class alternative on the ballot in the majority of states. If "the Bern" is to survive this election cycle, 500,000 or 1 million votes for Stein (which is entirely realistic) will be an important marker for the future.

Fortunately, revolutionary socialists are not faced with a sterile choice between abstract criticism from the sidelines or joining in the Sanders campaign in order to be relevant. In the wake of a one-day strike on April 1 by 30,000 teachers in Chicago, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, argued:

The political establishment, led by Barack Obama, is always willing to throw together a commission, invite activists to a roundtable, and unveil countless studies with the objective of creating the illusion that something is happening. And they try and convince the rest of us that "something" is progress.

But what we are confronting is the systemic, rooted and institutional feature of racism and oppression in this society and it requires a political strategy that can challenge it--but also look beyond it.

These are the things we can do now, but our goals of Black liberation cannot be measured only in units of reform and that which is possible today. The fight for real freedom requires the fundamental transformation of a society founded on genocide; that flourished because of slavery, and simply thrives on economic inequality.

While Taylor's speech addressed the specific incompatibility of capitalism and Black freedom, her analysis holds just as true for a strategy to challenge oppression, imperialism and class exploitation in general. It should serve as a guide for socialists for the remainder of this election year and beyond.

Rather than following Sanders into the Democratic Party, pursuing the goals Taylor advances requires patiently creating the building blocks of an entirely different sort of party, one that fights for workers, students, and everyone suffering from the two-party system and the capitalist greed upon which it feeds and which it defends.

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