by Jeff Booth and Elisabeth Wichser
And so today, I am announcing the suspension of active campaigning and congratulate Joe Biden, a very decent man, on his victory.Bernie Sanders (April 8, 2020)
The Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for President in the current election cycle in the U.S. ended earlier this year. Many Liberal and progressive voters, activists, and some socialists were shocked and disappointed by Sanders abruptly quitting the Presidential race. Some political organizations that in U.S. terms are known as Left or self-described as “Left,” such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) had endorsed and campaigned for Sanders in 2015–2016 and again in 2019–2020.
Less than a week after suspending his campaign, Sanders formally endorsed Joe Biden for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination despite many state Democratic Party primaries remaining before the general election. Sanders could have “run all the way” by campaigning in the remaining primaries and contesting for nomination at the Democratic Party National Convention scheduled for August 17–20, 2020.
Ex-President Obama and Sanders had at least three phone meetings prior to Sanders “suspending” his campaign. Representatives of the Sanders and Biden campaigns also spent three weeks before April 8 cooperating on a strategy to convince Sanders supporters that Biden would accept at least some progressive demands from the Sanders campaign.
Once out of the race, Sanders pledged to campaign vigorously for Biden. He also lectured his supporters, claiming it would be “irresponsible” not to vote for Biden. Before conceding to Biden, Sanders declared that Biden represented everything wrong with the Democratic Party. Since stopping his campaign, Sanders publicly speaks of his friendship with Biden, announcing “we need you [Biden] in the White House.”
Sanders still has some delegates to the Democratic Party convention and claimed he could use these delegates to influence Biden to adopt progressive demands. Sanders also tried to discipline his remaining delegates: “The campaign of the senator from Vermont has told some supporters picked to represent him this year to sign agreements barring attacks on other candidates or party leaders, combative confrontations on social media or talking to reporters without approval” (Washington Post, May 20, 2020).
Since Sanders began campaigning for Biden, the only progressive demand Biden has adopted from the Sanders campaign is to, “make public colleges and universities tuition-free for all families with incomes below $125,000.” This is a popular demand. But there is no accountability outside of or within the Democratic Party to ensure that he will implement this policy once in office.
Biden has publicly rejected the central demand of the Sanders campaign, “Medicare for All,” dismissing it as “too expensive.” This, despite the COVID-19 pandemic debacle which exposed the disaster of “Obamacare” and the American private, profit-driven system that exploits health care needs.
Political Vacuum on the Left
Sanders withdrew from the Democratic Party field of candidates as the COVID-19 virus was disrupting U.S. society and severely impacting an already weakening economic situation. A looming recession has turned into the worst downturn since the Great Depression of 1929–1941. Mass unemployment, increasing food and housing insecurity, and a precarious future exists for most in the U.S. Last week, 1.3 million more people filed for unemployment payments, joining as many as one in three workers without jobs. According to a recent Bloomberg article, “Two-thirds of New Yorkers rent their homes, making it America’s biggest rental market, …with unemployment soaring and the typical rent about twice the national average, the numbers no longer add up. A quarter of the city’s apartment renters haven’t paid since March, according to the Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), a group that represents mostly landlords…”
Sanders called his campaign a movement, “a political revolution.” Yet soon after Sanders endorsed Biden, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement against racism and police brutality reemerged in response to police murdering George Floyd on May 25. Massive protests became an uprising, the largest mass movement since the late 1960s/early 1970s. Biden has been absent from the BLM protest movement, of course. Sanders and other progressive, populist Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) have had almost no public profile or impact on the revitalized and extremely important BLM movement. Sanders and Biden have both explicitly opposed defunding the police, with Sanders even putting forward increases to police pay.
Instead, Sanders, AOC, and the so-called “Left” of the Democratic Party fell in line quickly to support Biden and put their energies into internal party politics, like supporting other Democrats in primaries, shying away from putting forward any serious anti-racist polices while thousands of protests against racism and police brutality exploded in cities and small towns across the U.S.
There is a political vacuum on the Left. The U.S. has no mass workers’ party of any sort: no mass socialist party, communist party, labor or social democratic party. The Democratic Party is a pro-capitalist, corporate political party, an electoral brand run by a corporation called the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The U.S. Democratic Party is not, nor has ever been a Social Democratic Party. It has no membership, no formal union affiliations, it contains no mass organizations. The U.S. working class is simply not represented politically. There is no mass Left party, even one that could be called reformist.
A fundamental problem facing the U.S. working class, the small Left, and real progressives in the U.S. is the failure to organize a mass workers’ party. The U.S. working class, despite significant attempts, has never achieved its own political independence. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, founders of modern socialism, addressed this problem early in the socialist movement internationally:
Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength, and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat [working class] is to be swindled.The progress which the proletarian [workers’] party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, 1850
“The Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements” is a well-known phrase among Left and progressive activists in the U.S. If the Democrats cannot control and co-opt a Left or progressive social movement, channeling its energy and resources into the Democratic Party, then the Democratic Party and other capitalist institutions will work to marginalize or bury any social movements or political parties rising to the Left of the Democratic Party.
Sanders and other Democrats sometimes talk about social movements, but they never use their resources and influence to organize mass movements. They stick to status quo, Democratic Party politics in terms of organizing. Sanders’ demand for Medicare for All was kept within the confines of a Democratic Party Presidential bid. Now, Sanders is throwing everything into helping Biden and the Democratic Party grab more power while Biden and the Democratic Party both oppose “Medicare for All.”
Sanders has ended up trying to reform the Democratic Party, to make it more Liberal, more “progressive.” He considered this a hopeless and harmful strategy when he was a socialist in the 1970s. Despite the label, Sanders is no longer a socialist and has not been one since the early 1990s at the latest.
The Approaching Presidential Election
Trump is depressed over his polling numbers. He slides downward in the polls as he joins sections of the capitalist class to push workers back into face-to-face work, through the threat of job loss, despite a surge in COVID-19 infections.
Biden barely campaigns. When he does, it is almost entirely an anti-Trump message focused on Trump’s latest right-wing tweet, particularly when Trump downplays the seriousness of COVID-19. Trump not being suitable for the “Office of the Presidency” is a well-worn Biden theme. Progressive demands are rarely mentioned.
The “Dump Trump” sentiment among many working people and youth is certainly understandable. However, “Left” political organizations, who should know better, help perpetuate the cycle of voting for one of the two big business parties. A “lesser evil” approach is the best many “Left” groups can come up with in the face of capitalist crisis. The most commonly understood meaning of lesser evilism is to “vote Blue no matter who” because Republicans are worse than Democrats.
Many of the biggest cities in the U.S. have one-party rule by the Democrats and in some states this is topped off with Democratic control of the state legislature. In the Clinton and Obama administrations, there were years of Democratic Party control of Congress and the Presidency, along with Democratic Party dominance in many cities and states. This does not prevent Democratic party rule from routinely embracing policies of austerity, poverty, police abuse, and systemic racism. Growing inequality flourishes under lesser evilism. While the Democratic and Republican parties are not the same, they are similar enough in their joint defense of capitalism and imperialism to further the political dictatorship and interests of big business.
Despite the deepening recession, relentless bad news about the pandemic, and growing hatred of Trump, there is little enthusiasm for Biden among progressives and the Left. There is a growing layer of workers and youth who will not allow their hatred of Trump to be used against them by wasting their votes on another capitalist politician.
Biden is clearly in the pocket of the “billionaire class,” a phrase from the Sanders campaign. A recent title from Forbes on June 30, 2020, reads: “Biden Now Up To 106 Billionaire Donors; Trump Has 93.” On social media, activists compare notes about Biden’s history, including his early support for racial segregation, his more recent support for mass incarceration as an architect of the 1994 Federal Crime Bill, and numerous accusations against Biden of sexual harassment.
Given the lack of a mass workers’ or Left party, it is understandable for individual voters and people new to political engagement to have illusions in a progressive populist like Sanders. However, “Left” political organizations often fall under the influence of the Democratic Party and try to reform the party from within (despite there being no real membership or internal democracy, only “voters,” campaign staffers, and edicts from the DNC). The continuing dominance of the Democratic and Republican parties over U.S. politics is a big reason for the significant decline in the strength of the labor movement and chronically weak social benefits.
Taking Stock of the U.S. Left
Historically, much of the U.S. “Left” ends up co-opted into the Democratic Party or tailing the Democratic Party. This continues today. DSA, the largest Left group in the U.S., officially wants to be the Left wing of the Democratic Party, putting forward an “inside/outside” strategy. This means, for the most part, running or supporting “progressive” candidates in the Democratic Party. DSA often acts as a proxy for the Democratic Party as a result of this strategy. DSA’s politics, essentially Liberal, are now facing some resistance from minority socialist factions within it that have appeared as DSA has grown.
After Sanders’ 2015–2016 and 2019–2020 campaigns ended, DSA saw a relatively large growth in membership, claiming around 70,000 members. The number of active members is unclear.
At the 2019 DSA National Convention, there were no resolutions demanding DSA end its support for Democratic Party candidates. Instead, a resolution was passed that included: “… the Democratic Socialists of America will not endorse another Democratic presidential candidate should Bernie Sanders not prevail.”
This resolution was a limited step forward, but without much relevance until Sanders suddenly ended his campaign. Prior to that, there were huge illusions among many DSA members that Sanders could actually win the Democratic Party endorsement. The resolution only applies to the Presidential race. DSA is not endorsing Joe Biden. However, many other Democrats, not running for President, continue to receive endorsement and support from the DSA.
DSA members and Democrats DSA endorses are not bound to adhere to membership votes on resolutions. As DSA feels pressure from the Democratic Party, including Sanders and the Liberal establishment, there is a question of whether the convention decision blocking an endorsement of Biden will last until the Presidential election in November. There is a good chance that DSA will either find a formal way to reverse its convention decision or ignore it in practice through many DSA members probably campaigning and voting for Biden.
Many small, Left or nominal “Left” groups like the Communist Party, Socialist Alternative, Party of Socialism and Liberation, Workers World, etc. have followed their own versions of supporting the Democratic Party. With an “all in” or “inside/outside” strategy, they tailed Sanders and other “progressive” Democrats deemed “Left.”
Some smaller Left groups, including splits from Left groups, mesmerized by DSA’s relative growth, took an opportunist approach to DSA, mimicking DSA’s political orientation to reforming the Democratic Party, and/or liquidating into DSA. One small but fairly well-known group among Left activists was called the International Socialist Organization (ISO). ISO voted to dissolve itself under the weight of internal pressures, including whether or not to support Sanders amongst other tense issues.
DSA and smaller Left groups in the U.S. mainly expressed regret when Sanders quit running for President, twice. Their analysis of what happened tends to criticize the corruption and corporate nature of the Democrats without using a basic materialist analysis. They somehow magically separated Sanders from the Democratic Party and supported the candidate of a capitalist political party. Sanders has aligned himself with the Democratic Party and worked to build it since the early 1990s.
Some smaller Left groups resisted capitulating to the Democratic Party-with-a-Sanders-face. Some of them have given up on any organizing around electoral politics, even Left politics. Others are sitting out this particular election, afraid of Liberal pressure to vote Democrat.
Other smaller Left groups are endorsing eco-socialist, Left Green Howie Hawkins’ Green Party campaign for President. The Hawkins campaign has a serious program, firmly to the Left of any Democrats, including Sanders. The Hawkins campaign includes demands for an “eco-socialist Green New Deal, an economic bill of rights, and a socialist economy.”
Out of the wreckage of the first Sanders campaign in 2016, a former high-level campaign staffer launched “Movement for a People’s Party” (MPP). This new formation is progressive and Left-leaning but is mostly a presence on social media. It is developing a program for a progressive party and recruiting supporters.
However, MPP still follows an “inside/outside” strategy in some respects, towards the Democratic Party. It is providing a platform for Democrats to speak in one of its most public events to date, and it is sitting out this year’s election. Despite these weaknesses, it has potential to grow.
Any Left or progressive organization, or any prominent Left activist in the U.S. will be attacked full-force by the Liberal establishment tied to the Democratic Party. The corporate media will exert pressure on any resistance against supporting Biden and other Democrats. The full fury of Liberal elites and NGO careerists is on display every four years. An example of this is an “Open Letter to the Green Party in 2020,” published in January 2020, from Liberal and “Left” luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich and others which included claims that the Green Party was responsible for Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 Presidential election. It urged the Greens, including Hawkins, to not run in any state where they might pull votes from the Democratic Party nominee for President and stated that “… real solutions require Trump out of office. Real solutions will become far more probable with Sanders or Warren in office. Real solutions will become somewhat more probable even with the likes of Biden in office.” This “Open Letter” is the typical dirty work of many so-called “Leftists” who routinely promote the Democratic Party, doing damage, year after year, to any attempts to build a political force to the Left of the Democrats, a force that could help organize a workers’ party.
The Howie Hawkins campaign, the beginnings of the MPP, and some independent Left campaigns and the demands these organizations help to popularize could be positive steps forward in helping to organize a future workers’ party. Massive economic and political changes in the U.S. coupled with consistently growing support for socialism show that there are enormous challenges and opportunities for a real socialist movement. An October, 2019 Pew Research Poll found that “[a]bout 4 in 10 Americans have positive views of socialism” because it fosters equality, though people’s definitions of socialism vary from social democratic systems to genuine socialism.
The Independent Socialist Group (ISG) is a new revolutionary socialist group in the U.S. We are in political solidarity with the Committee for a Workers International (CWI). We do not support Sanders or any Democratic Party politicians. ISG called on Sanders to run as an Independent and to help build a workers’ party. We sympathetically engaged and still appeal to Sanders supporters to join us in common struggles for progressive demands. We continue to urge Sanders supporters to join us in ongoing local, community issues, labor organizing and support, and Left political struggles.
ISG is committed to helping break the capitalist domination over working-class politics in the U.S. Our political activity includes supporting and participating in the BLM protest movement, building democracy, militancy and solidarity in the labor movement, and helping to organize the political independence of the U.S. working class. We contribute to bringing broad Left and progressive forces together for a mass, diverse workers’ party in the U.S. as part of the struggle to organize for revolutionary socialism.
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0.