Why We Socialists Don’t Support Bernie Sanders for President
Despite the fact that the Democratic Party is, along with the Republican Party, one of the twin pillars of U.S. imperialism, much of the U.S. left is looking for ways to accommodate—if not support—Bernie Sanders’ campaign to be the Democratic candidate for President of the United States.1 Some of these groups support liberal Democrats like Sanders as a matter of policy.2 Others need a special candidate to campaign for.3 In Bernie Sanders, many would-be left and socialist organizations seem to have found a candidate that will allow them all to capitulate to the Democratic Party. In either case, their support for Sanders—both as an elected official with a track record of complicity with imperialism and as a member of the Democratic Party—represents the abdication of their responsibility to build a left-wing, working-class alternative to the U.S. ruling parties and to oppose imperialism at every turn.
How do they justify this?
For many of these leftists, the fact that Sanders’ campaign is enjoying a certain amount of success in his race against Democratic Party frontrunner Hillary Clinton despite his self-identification as a “democratic socialist” means that the U.S. masses are beginning to develop a revolutionary consciousness.4 They argue that, even though Sanders makes it extremely clear that he is in no way an anti-capitalist candidate, Sanders’ popularity demonstrates that the label “socialist” is no longer the absolute stigma that it was during the Cold War and the period after.5 Ergo, some form of “socialism” is back on the agenda for the United States.
But what is the nature of the “movement for the political revolution” that Bernie Sanders is building with the help of groups like Socialist Alternative?6 In this case, Sanders is building a movement of the middle class—small business owners and well-paid workers who identify themselves as middle class—and students that plays upon their desires to return to some earlier, more prosperous version of the U.S. in which education was cheap, if not free, and small businesses could offer good jobs at union wages to their employees.7 This constituency is also alarmed at the increasing rate at which the ruling class is arming the police ever more heavily, building more prisons, and spying on everyone electronically in order to protect their wealth and power. In other words, Sanders is inflating expectations that these “good old days” can return, when, in fact, the degradation of the environment and the emergence of new competitors to the old imperialisms of the United States and Europe on the world scene all but guarantee that U.S. capitalism will continue to decay.8 And much of the U.S. left is at least not opposing Sanders, if not going along with him.
To this end, these leftists accept Sanders’ rants against income equality and the “billionaire class” or the “one-percenters’” exercise of a stranglehold on U.S. politics as essentially “socialist” critiques of U.S. politics. In other words, they see Bernie Sanders as the type of candidate for which there is a precedent for some groups on the left to provide with critical support, like Ralph Nader.9 They forget, apparently, that even though Ralph Nader’s politics were very similar to Sanders’ in some ways, Nader was explicitly running to build a left party outside of the Democrats, and he didn’t have the record of complicity with the imperial war machine that Sanders has.
Meanwhile, we recognize that Sanders is loyally running as a Democrat in order to build the Democratic Party with fundraising and recruitment.10 His switch of registration from “Independent” to “Democrat” is an explicit, public abandonment of the political independence that he has not practiced for many years. And, of course, Bernie Sanders has implicitly retracted any left-wing critique he has made of the Democratic Party.11
As such, Sanders’ candidacy as a Democrat has become a tremendous obstacle to the building of an independent formation of workers and the oppressed to fight for their own political objectives, which we, as a revolutionary organization, see as the key political task in the U.S. In fact, even in Sanders’ days as the “Independent Congressperson from Vermont”, he built a record of collaboration with the Democrats and Republicans on many if not most of their imperialist proposals of which he is quite proud. It is for reasons like this that we, as socialists, refuse to support Sanders.
At this writing, Bernie Sanders is losing the Democratic primaries. This is his role: to be the left-Democrat candidate who fosters hopeful illusions in left-liberals and convinces them to join and support the Democratic Party, as did Dennis Kucinich, Bill Bradley, Jerry Brown, Jesse Jackson, and many others from the history of Democratic Party presidential campaigns. When this candidate loses the primary and endorses the invariably center-right anointed candidate, the movement behind him either collapses or supports the winner of the primary, with the best new activists becoming the next generation of Democratic Party cadres. Perhaps Sanders’ campaign rhetoric suggests that he really thought, and maybe even still thinks, that he can win. Even so, we find it difficult to believe that he could be so naive as to not have expected that the likely outcome would be losing the primary and endorsing Clinton. In any case, he continues a long tradition of using a progressive profile to get anti-war and left activists to support the reactionary politics of the Democrats.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to his campaign. From the very beginning, Sanders has written and spoken of his intention to either win or to support the Democratic candidate, with the intention in either instance to place whatever organization he built out of his campaign at the service of the Democratic Party. In Sanders’ letter to the Democratic National Committee dated June 2, 2015, Sanders talks about how much he wants to help the Democrats win elections.12 Back in January 2015, when he was merely considering running, Sanders said, “No matter what I do, I will not be a spoiler,” Sanders said. “I will not play that role in helping to elect some right-wing Republican as President of the United States.”13 With this statement, we should understand that Sanders was signaling to the Democratic Party leadership that he would not break with the party and run as an independent in the manner of Ralph Nader.
Those who argue that Sanders’ candidacy is a movement to democratize the Democrats, and/or that such a movement could succeed are just plain mistaken. If anything, the Sanders campaign should illustrate to these leftists how well the anti-democratic machinery—in particular, the media blackouts, the way that the primary process varies from state to state, the assignment of delegates by proportional representation that makes it incredibly difficult to catch up to the frontrunner, and, especially, the so-called “unpledged” super-delegates, the vast majority of which have actually been pledged to Clinton since before Sanders even declared, giving her a functionally insurmountable lead in the primary election—within the Democratic Party works.14 Meanwhile, Sanders and his campaign are co-opting #BlackLivesMatter and Occupy activists into the party of imperialism, for which he deserves nothing but contempt from the left in this country. Even if many of Sanders’ supporters go back to being independent if and when he loses, the opportunity to build an independent left, working-class challenge to the Democratic Party at this level will be lost for another four years. And if Sanders wins, then the movement will be set back much farther, as a nominal socialist will then be in the awkward position of running the richest, most heavily armed imperialist country of all time. For this reason, it is our position the fact that more or less sincere leftists are supporting Bernie Sanders and not trying to build outside of the Democratic Party serves as a near-absolute barrier to the development of an independent movement of workers and the oppressed in the U.S.
Bernie Sanders is not an anti-war or an anti-imperialist candidate. He offers a definition of socialism that is Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal with a nod to civil rights.15 In fact, the New Deal was tremendously racist and even more deeply enmeshed the U.S. working class, its government, the military, large corporations, and the super-exploitation of the people and resources of the rest of the world.16 To the degree that leftists allow Sanders to pass off his definition of socialism as the real deal, they are actually working to set back working-class consciousness.
A real socialist candidate would propose a clear path for the working class’ seizing control of the means of production, which Bernie Sanders is explicitly against. Such a candidate would argue that real democratic representation of the working class depends upon its mobilization to take power. Bernie Sanders is completely content with the bourgeoisie owning the means of production, which means he supports U.S. capitalism. What he wants is a kinder, gentler capitalism that shares with the rest, as he advocates for better social conditions in the United States, like free university and free healthcare for all, as seen in other countries.
Even worse, when Bernie Sanders is asked how he will pay for his programs, he talks about a tax increase in some brackets (while the people in the middle and at the bottom stay the same), as well as some other new taxes on Wall Street transactions and corporations’ offshore bank accounts.17 Sanders never says that he intends to address the true sources of this wealth, which is mostly extracted from depressed wages of manufacturing workers and natural resources extracted at a fraction of their true costs in other countries. In our view, Sanders’ implied answer is that he will pay for his programs the same way the United States has always paid for them: by forcibly extracting cheap labor and raw materials from other countries through economic means if not at gunpoint. This is the definition of imperialism, and to argue that Sanders’ version of imperialism is somehow less violent and exploitative than Obama, Clinton, or Bush’s imperialism is a betrayal of the international working class.
Which raises the question: whom shall we vote for?
Unfortunately, with much of the left accommodating the Sanders campaign in one form or another, one can only say that the Democratic Party is doing an effective job of preventing an alternative from developing. There are, however, some candidates that could serve as protest candidates. The problem is that they are not on the ballot everywhere and, therefore have negligible chances of winning.
Among them is Gloria La Riva from the Party for Socialism and Liberation, who has a very decent program and for whom we might recommend to vote, despite our profound differences with her organization’s international positions (which include support for bourgeois nationalist regimes and Stalinist organizations and regimes).
We also have Jill Stein running in the Green Party primary again who has a very good chance of being their candidate. Stein—or whichever candidate the Greens select—will probably be on the ballot in more states than most of these candidates. Her program, with its call for a “Green New Deal” is highly comparable to Sanders’ program. There is some movement in the Green Party to make the party platform explicitly anti-capitalist, but Stein doesn’t appear to be part of that. She also only calls for a 50% reduction in the U.S. defense budget, which is nowhere near the full disarmament platform we require. Still, she gives the opportunity for left votes against the Democrats to be counted.
The important thing is not to be led by Bernie Sanders and his campaign and its leftist hangers-on to vote Democratic. A true working class, left wing, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist alternative is not on the ballot this year. The gargantuan task of building this alternative remains before us. In the meantime, one can at least take the important step of not voting for one of the twin parties of world capitalism, and we heartily encourage all to do so.
Berned Out: Why we socialists don’t support Bernie Sanders for President
By the Left Party
22 March 2016
The Left Party is a revolutionary socialist organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
1 For an example of accommodation, look at this article by the Freedom Socialist Party, which contributes a critique of how the undemocratic primary system will keep Bernie Sanders from being the Democratic candidate. They take no position for or against Sanders, only mentioning that his program is “not all that socialist or even, in some important ways, progressive.” http://www.socialism.com/drupal-6.8/statements/primary-season-exercise-un-democracy
3 Socialist Alternative is in the process of conducting a very confusing campaign to support the movement for Sanders without supporting the candidate himself. http://www.socialistalternative.org/2015/05/20/debate-what-should-left-say/
4 While this article criticizes Sanders as a Democratic Party “sheepdog”, it also talks about how Sanders has generated an outcry that is equivalent to support for some aspects of the “revolutionary” the Socialist Organizer program. http://socialistorganizer.org/democratic-party-trap/
5 Here is an article by Joseph M. Schwartz, vice-president of Democratic Socialists of America about how Bernie Sanders is putting socialism back on the agenda in the U.S. http://inthesetimes.com/article/18678/bringing-socialism-back-how-bernie-sanders-is-reviving-an-american-traditio
6 Socialist Alternative has even gone as far as to place Sanders’ slogan to “Build the Political Revolution Against the Billionaire Class” on the front page of their newspaper. They appear to have forgotten that a political revolution is only a change in government or some aspect of the institutions on which the government rests while maintaining the fundamental property relations, and is often accomplished with the express goal of maintaining the fundamental property relations. In this instance, Sanders is clear that his political revolution will preserve the fundamental property relations of the ruling class’ control of the means of production of social value, the capitalist system they are supposed to be fighting to replace, in other words. https://s3-us-west-1.amazonaws.com/socialistalternative-content/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/17135526/Socialist-Alternative-Newspaper-Issue-20.pdf
7 Incidentally, Donald Trump, with his rhetoric about erecting trade barriers (as well as physical barriers!) to bring jobs back to the U.S. is playing to a similar crowd on the right.
8 Sanders touches on the degradation of the environment when he says things like “Climate change is the biggest threat to U.S.’s national security,” framing the problem with a chillingly imperialist spin. The new competitors to U.S. and European imperialism are based in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—the so-called B.R.I.C.S. on the material basis of either the industrial facilities located in their countries by the U.S. and Europe in their attempts to politically disarm the working class in their own countries and capitalize on cheap labor pools in poorer countries or, in the case of Russia, under the former Soviet Union.
9 Ralph Nader ran for president as an independent on the Green Party ticket in 2000. The Democratic Party blames Nader for Al Gore’s loss, specifically because the votes Nader received in some counties in Florida exceeded the margin by which Al Gore lost to George Bush, which gave Bush the electoral votes for the state of Florida, enabling him to become President even though he had lost the popular vote nationwide. This is the myth of the “spoiler.”