Debating the role of socialists in Election 2016

May 25, 2016

Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is still winning votes and inspiring hope for an alternative to the status quo, even as the final primaries approach with Hillary Clinton all but certain to be the Democratic candidate in November. This stage of Election 2016 brings the discussions and debates on the left into new focus. The International Socialist Organization, SW's publisher, agreed to a second exchange of views on the Sanders campaign with the U.S. group Socialist Alternative (the first, "What should the left say about Sanders?" appeared in May 2015). Below are commentaries by Todd Chretien, writing for the ISO, and Philip Locker and Stephan Kimmerle, writing for Socialist Alternative.

Todd Chretien

For the International Socialist Organization

LAST YEAR, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Socialist Alternative (SA) exchanged views about the Bernie Sanders campaign to contribute to the left's discussions about how to approach this important development, especially the exciting revival of interest in socialism that accompanied it. The exchange was also part of an effort to develop and continue joint work, as we did, for example, in helping to organize the Future of Left and Independent Politics Conference in Chicago last May.

We work together where we can, and we work separately when our priorities and perspectives differ. For our part, ISO members are confident in our work, particularly that we haven't stood on the "sidelines" for the past year, as was charged in a Socialist Alternative article earlier this year.

In the spirit of furthering our exchange, I offer this critique, because what SA does matters: Kshama Sawant's campaigns in Seattle have inspired many on the left to consider the greater possibilities for independent politics, and SA has many dedicated organizers.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders

Back in May 2015, while enthusiastic about Sanders' left-wing message, I wrote: "[T]here's one way that Sanders' campaign doesn't stand out, and it's decisive for socialists. He is running for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, and he has ruled out in advance an independent campaign in 2016."

Unfortunately, I concluded that "[t]here's no reason socialists shouldn't take him at his word." And before the New York primary in April, Sanders drove home this very point:

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.

Thus, socialists faced a dilemma: How to relate to "the Bern," while not becoming ensnared into support for the Democrats and their candidates.

There are many dedicated socialists who believe the Democrats can be reformed, or at least that socialists should pursue an "inside/out" strategy. The ISO argues that this approach cannot succeed, and we assumed that SA agreed on this point. Thus, we were surprised that SA has spent the last year supporting Sanders' campaign within the Democratic Party.

Back in May 2015, Philip Locker argued that SA could "boldly interven[e] in the Sanders campaign," but that "[w]e will not help to sign people up for the Democratic Party."

All the same, this is precisely what SA has been forced to do. Sanders is running to win the Democratic primaries--and if he were to win, SA has pledged repeatedly to support him in the general election as the Democratic Party nominee.

So what does it mean to organize a #Movement4Bernie as SA has done? It can only mean organizing a Movement (an electoral campaign) for (to vote for) Bernie (Sanders, who links progressive proposals to support for the Democrats).

In fact, SA has been arguing contradictory positions. They have, in practice, put their efforts into helping Sanders win the Democratic nomination and pledged to support him if he does. And in the far more likely scenario that Clinton wins the nomination, they have stoked the illusion that Sanders might run as an independent, even offering him tactical advice about how to do so without disrupting Clinton's electoral chances against Trump.

Let's look at Sawant's speech to a Sanders rally in New York City on April 16. Sawant rightly amplifies Sanders' attacks on Wall Street, though she doesn't criticize Sanders' foreign policy, which, if less hawkish than Clinton's, hardly challenges the dominance of U.S. imperialism.

Sawant does warn absolutely correctly against falling for supporting Democrats as the lesser evil to Republicans: "This undemocratic primary and undemocratic party is a prison for the 99 Percent. Let's break out of this prison!...We cannot stop [Trump and Cruz] by silencing our voices, holding our noses and voting for Clinton, the candidate of Wall Street, Walmart and warmongering.

But in the next breath, she recommends adopting part of the inside/outside method--the so-called "safe state strategy," whereby left-wing third parties downplay or close down their campaigns in states where they could "take votes" from Democrats, resulting in a Republican victory.

"I agree," Sawant said, "that some would argue that if Bernie ran as an independent in the general election it runs the risk of tipping it to the Republicans...but there is absolutely no reason that Bernie cannot run on the ballot in the 40 or more states that are not so-called swing states...So why shouldn't Bernie run all the way?"

The problem is that this strategy has already derailed the Green Party in the very recent past. After Ralph Nader won 2.7 million votes in 2000, the Democrats raised the cry of "spoiler" against the Greens. And in the next election, rather than supporting Nader and socialist vice presidential candidate Peter Camejo, the Green Party chose a nominee with a "safe state" approach that got just 120,000 votes.

The ISO has adopted a different approach in this election. We welcome "the Bern" as a sign of a political radicalization in the U.S., and we have engaged with a large audience for socialist ideas at public forums, debates, protests and even Sanders' rallies. However, we have stated forthrightly that we will not endorse a candidate running inside the Democratic Party.

Indeed, we have found a layer of Sanders supporters who are already critical of the Democratic Party and eager to discuss how to win socialism. And since last fall, we have supported the campaign of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein as a step toward building an alternative to the two-party system.

SA's failure to take a similar independent course has weakened the effort to confront the two-party system, not strengthened it. I believe its strategy, rather than being a short-term mistake, flows directly from deeper political problems.

First, SA badly underestimates the strength of the Democratic Party. As I have argued previously, SA's assertion that the Democrats are "disintegrating" is a dangerous illusion.

The second and more serious political problem is SA's analysis that the impetus for a left-wing electoral challenge to the Democrats will come from inside the party itself. For example, Tony Saunois wrote for the website:

The election system is designed to block the type of revolt that is currently taking place. Yet such is the surge in support for his radical reformist polices and the idea of a "political revolution," it is not absolutely certain it will be able to do so. Should Sanders manage to win despite the major obstacles which exist, the Democratic capitalist leadership would never accept such an outcome. They would move to sabotage his campaign and an effective split in the party would develop.

Unfortunately, this analysis has no basis in fact and little support in U.S. history. There have been far more powerful challenges to the Democratic Party "establishment" (as SA puts it) than "the Bern"; for example, the Communist-backed Popular Front with Roosevelt's Democrats in the 1930s, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's efforts to desegregate the party in the 1960s, and the Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s.

In each case, rather than leading to "an effective split," the left was gobbled up by the Democratic Party, partly because the left and social movements believed the Democrats could be reformed, challenged from within or splintered in order to create a new formation.

There is a long, disastrous history of social movements and the left hoping for "effective splits" initiated by leaders within the Democratic Party. In reality, any genuine split will only occur after the forces of the independent left and social movement organization are strong enough, and class struggle is high enough, to compel it.

Instead of looking to the grassroots as the source of a future "political revolution," SA accepts far too much of Sanders' own definition of social change coming from above. The ISO disagrees with this view, and we believe the history of the Democratic Party bears out our analysis.

There should be no doubt that, as Sawant declared in New York City, the Democrats are a "prison for the 99 Percent." But breaking halfway out of prison does little good. The tasks for revolutionary socialists in the coming months must be based on principled opposition to the Democrats and a realistic appraisal of what is possible.

Sanders will not lead millions of people out of the prison in July, and continuing to call on him to do so only sows confusion. But if we do our jobs right--if we extend a hand to those who will not follow him in endorsing Clinton--we can play a part in convincing thousands of new radicals that the fight for socialism, while it will require decades of tenacious struggle, must begin now.

Philip Locker and Stephan Kimmerle

For Socialist Alternative

"WE NEED a new party of the 99 Percent, and we need candidates everywhere fighting for what Bernie calls for: $15 an hour, Medicare for all and free education," stated Kshama Sawant, Seattle's Socialist Alternative City Council member, to the applause of the huge crowd at the Bernie Sanders rally at Safeco Field on March 25.

Making the biggest possible impact amongst Sanders supporters for fundamental socialist change and to break free from the Democratic Party--that has been the goal of SA throughout the Sanders campaign. And we have received a big echo for these ideas among the people fighting for Bernie's political revolution, at rallies, debates and within labor.

Millions are rebelling against the political establishment, inspired by Bernie's bold pro-worker demands. Over 2 million people donated, breaking all previous records. Hundreds of thousands have attended rallies and volunteered for the campaign of a self-described socialist.

This represents an earthquake in U.S. politics. In such a situation, socialists have a responsibility to engage with and be part of this movement. To stand aside from a historic mobilization of this scale--as unfortunately most of the far left including the ISO has done--is a serious mistake.

That does not in any way mean we should ignore the political weaknesses of Sanders' campaign. While Sanders is running on a broadly left-wing basis, we have criticized important deficiencies in his program. But most important is Sanders' mistaken decision to run within the Democratic Party, a party controlled by the same billionaire class Sanders wants to carry out a revolution against.

Despite huge support, it is increasingly clear that Sanders will not be able to win the Democratic nomination. This underlines that the Democratic Party is a key political pillar of U.S. capitalism. Sanders has said he will respect the outcome of the Democratic primaries and support Clinton if she is the nominee. This would transform the dominant character of his campaign from a rebellion against Corporate America into a left-wing prop for an establishment candidate.

Yet a significant section of Sanders supporters--20 to 35 percent in polls--say they will refuse to support Clinton in the general election. This represents the biggest opportunity for socialists in decades to build support for independent politics and a new socialist movement, but only if we have the tactical flexibility to connect with them.

New workers' parties will not develop in a clean or linear fashion, and we have to be prepared for all sorts of half steps as part of a developing process. The formation of new workers' parties rarely takes place in a pure form. Often elements from capitalist parties can be affected by the class struggle and play a contradictory role. In Greece the former workers' party, PASOK, found a part of its origins in the liberal capitalist Center Union. In Britain some elements from the Liberal Party were involved in the eventual formation of the Labour Party at the start of the 20th century.

Fighting for Leadership

Todd Chretien writes for the ISO that the Democratic Party cannot be reformed into a tool for working people. We agree. Therefore, Todd proposes not to join Sanders' campaign but "to work in unity with Sanders supporters around initiatives and actions outside the electoral arena" in movements.

SA has been involved in a whole range of movements over the past period. However, in all these movements the issue of how to relate to the presidential election has been a central question. Further, given the scale of the Sanders revolt, the ISO's approach is seriously insufficient. The reality is that the Sanders campaign, at this stage, has been by far the largest expression of the growing rebellion of working people and youth.

But leading elements in the Sanders campaign want to win this fresh audience to their political strategy of reforming the Democratic Party and a "socialism" which limits itself to reforming capitalism. In contrast, SA entered this battlefield to win support for building an alternative to the Democrats and for fundamental socialist change.

Unfortunately, the ISO and the majority of the radical left has not been able to help the radicalizing Sandernistas resolve the contradictions of the Sanders campaign in favor of independent politics and genuine socialism. Out of fear of coming too close to the Democratic Party, they have had a negligible presence at Sanders events. In practice this has been to the benefit of the pro-Democratic Party leaders in the Sanders campaign, making it easier for them to corral newly politicized layers behind their strategy.

For example, at the 40,000 person Bernie Sanders rally in Manhattan just before the New York primary, Socialist Alternative collected hundreds of signatures for Sanders to run as an independent, sold hundreds of copies of our newspaper which explained genuine socialist politics, and built for public meetings entitled "How Can We Continue the Political Revolution?" In contrast, all that we saw of the ISO was a table with the slogan "Join the Socialists!" Besides appealing for people to join the ISO, there was no offer to the thousands of radicalizing Sanders supporters for how to take their struggle forward. Nor was this isolated to the New York rally.

This is indicative, in our view, of an important difference in method between SA and the ISO. While openly fighting for our politics and seeking to build our distinct organization, we also think socialists must fight for proposals and demands that can help a broader movement advance beyond simply saying they need to join our socialist organization or only uncritically promoting the existing movement. While they have kind words for Kshama now and endorsed Kshama's 2015 re-election campaign, the ISO didn't endorse her first campaign and didn't build her victorious 2013 campaign. We feel that this narrow approach is also reflected--in a different way--in their intervention with Sanders supporters.

This relates to a strategic question for U.S. socialists: Do we advocate for the idea of working people forming their own mass party, even if in the first instance it does not adopt a socialist program? SA believes such a step would be a historic advance for the U.S. working class and would provide an arena for socialists to demonstrate concretely the need for a socialist program to a mass audience. In our experience this has not been the approach of the ISO.

Bernie Should Run as an Independent in November

Confronted with a defeat in this rigged primary the struggle to liberate this movement from the Democrats becomes more and more urgent for Sanders supporters. That's why the socialist left should build momentum behind Kshama Sawant's call for Sanders to run outside the Democratic Party--in the general election, for example on the Green ticket with Jill Stein, and lay the basis for a new party of the 99 Percent. 30,000 people have so far signed this petition! Is the ISO prepared to take up and fight for this demand among Sanders supporters?

The ISO focuses on debating the "safe state" issue that SA members raised as a potential option to cut across the fear of Trump and against Sanders's own declaration that he would refuse to be a "spoiler." While this isn't a central issue, we think it can be useful as a potential tactic to arm Sanders supporters who are gravitating towards independent left politics to cut across the coming "lesser evil" tidal wave.

The ISO's Todd Chretien wrote that SA "has made a tactical decision to follow Sanders into the [Democratic] Party." This is not true. We argued for Sanders to run as an independent, criticized him for choosing to run in the Democratic primaries, and have urged Sanders to run as an independent in the general election. SA members have not joined the Democrats or registered as Democrats, and we have made clear to activists in the Sanders campaign that we wouldn't sign people up to register as Democrats.

Todd also writes: "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."

When people heard us speak or read our material this was not their "natural conclusion," as we explicitly argued that we need to build a new party as an alternative to the Democratic Party. Furthermore, is this not a danger socialists face in many struggles? Is there a danger that the Fight for 15 promotes illusions that we can make capitalism "fair?" Or that people would "naturally conclude" that if socialists supported Occupy they were supporting the semi-anarchist and populist ideas that predominated in that movement?

Finding our way towards a new radicalizing generation supporting Sanders while putting forward a principled position is critical to rebuilding a socialist left. Future developments will often be similarly "impure" like the Sanders campaign. Socialists will need to be actively involved in the movements of working people--even if these movements or its leaders have serious limitations--while fighting for an independent socialist position.

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