If Donkeys Could Fly
Bernie Sanders and the Pressure
of the Opportunist Left
Campaign of Democratic Party “socialist” Bernie Sanders (supporter of war on Afghanistan and legalizing NSA domestic spying) aims to bring disaffected “progressives” back to the Democratic fold to vote for war hawk Hillary Clinton.
As Barack Obama’s second presidential term limps toward the finish line, the promises of “hope” and “change” which his Wall Street sponsors and political marketeers dangled before voters lie in tatters. Bewailing widespread disillusionment in the American political system is a standard theme from talk-show pundits to academia. The press reports a weighty, “data-driven” Princeton University study finding that the “US is an oligarchy, not a democracy” – oh, what a surprise! – as it is “dominated by a rich and powerful elite.” Underlying much of the malaise is the fact that Obama has presided over a continuing economic depression along with the worsening of already spectacular levels of inequality. With Republican flat-earthers sparring over who is the most reactionary of all and war-hawk Hillary Clinton dominating the Democratic field, the electoral circus is back again.
The fact is that bourgeois “democracy” is and has always been the class dictatorship of the owners of wealth and property. It’s not just about the Koch brothers and Supreme Court decisions declaring corporations to be people. Long ago, Karl Marx “grasped [the] essence of capitalist democracy splendidly when ... he said that the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them,” as Russian Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin wrote in State and Revolution (1917). Sound familiar?
Entering stage “left” to throw his hat in the ring in this tawdry drama is the senator from Vermont who poses as a loveable progressive, “Bernie” Sanders. Billed as an Independent, Sanders has long been a cog in the Democrats’ Congressional machine, including participating in their caucus and committee work. In the 2008 and 2012 elections, he supported Obama, who in turn went to Vermont to campaign for Sanders in 2012. Announcing a bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders brought in as campaign manager long-time Democratic operative Ted Devine, who got his start in 1988 managing the vice-presidential campaign of Texas Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, notorious for threatening to use nuclear weapons during the Korean War (see the chilling film, Atomic Cafe).
Announcing his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in early May, Sanders grabbed some headlines with the statement: “We need a political revolution in this country involving millions of people who are prepared to stand up and say, enough is enough, and I want to help lead that effort.” And what kind of “revolution” does he have in mind? Why, voting for the current government party, the Democrats. For her part, Hillary Clinton tweeted: “I agree with Bernie. Focus must be on helping America’s middle class. GOP would hold them back. I welcome him to the race.”
Sanders stated categorically that he will, as always, endorse whomever the Democrats eventually choose as their candidate for commander-in-chief of U.S. imperialism. Asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “But if you lose in this nomination fight, will you support the Democratic nominee?” Sanders replied, “Yes. I have in the past as well.” Stephanopoulos: “Not going to run as an independent?” Sanders: “Absolutely not. I’ve been very clear about that.” Like innumerable “progressive” campaign bids of the past – such as Jesse Jackson’s 1980s Rainbow Coalition, Howard Dean (2004) and Dennis Kucinich (2008), to name a few – the central political function of the Sanders campaign is to round up votes from disaffected voters, keep them in the Democratic fold, and deliver them to the eventual nominee.
It’s all a con game, and the first to fall for it is the opportunist left. Their appetites are whetted by the fact that “Bernie” Sanders, along with his man of the people image, sometimes styles himself a “democratic socialist.” In a country where the s-word is a no-no for politicians, this is a bit of a novelty. But it boils down to shopworn calls to “tax the rich,” a dash of trust-busting rhetoric like that arch-imperialist “progressive” Theodore Roosevelt, an occasional shout-out to the thoroughly capitalist “Scandinavian model,” and a heavy dose of “anti-totalitarian” China-bashing.
Meanwhile, Sanders, the Democratic Party “socialist” and reputed antiwar candidate, has repeatedly voted for U.S. imperialist wars. He poses as a defender of civil liberties but has voted for laws extending and legalizing U.S. domestic spying on the citizenry. And this “independent” toes the Democratic Party line whenever it counts. But that hasn’t stopped various self-styled socialists, would-be radicals, former Occupy Wall Street activists and assorted other reformist left groups from jostling each other as they try to climb on the Bernie bandwagon. Challenged on Sanders’ “socialist” moniker a while back, former Vermont governor and then chairman of the national Democratic Party Howard Dean said on “Meet the Press” (22 May 2005):
“Bernie can call himself anything he wants. He is basically a liberal Democrat, and he is a Democrat that – he runs as an Independent because he doesn’t like the structure and the money that gets involved…. The bottom line is that Bernie Sanders votes with the Democrats 98 percent of the time.”
A “Critical” Voice for U.S. Imperialism
The pretensions of Bernie Sanders to be a leftist, let alone a socialist, are a joke. His cheerleaders of the pseudo-left may present him as a friend of “working folks,” but the real record of the Vermont senator is no laughing matter. As a “critical” voice of support to U.S. imperialism, Sanders is an enemy of workers and the oppressed world-wide.
Let’s start with his reputation as an “antiwar” politician. This takes a lot of chutzpah. Yes, he declined to vote for the first Gulf War in 1991 under Republican George Bush the First, as did most Democrats in Congress. But he then supported the murderous “U.N.” sanctions against Iraq which according to the authoritative British medical journal Lancet led to up to a million deaths, including over 500,000 children. Once Democrat Bill Clinton was president, Sanders voted for U.S. intervention in Somalia (1993) and Clinton’s war on Yugoslavia (1999). In the wake of 9/11, Sanders voted for the open-ended Authorization for the Use of Military Force, and has repeatedly voted for military appropriations for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Co-sponsoring a 2007 resolution requiring congressional approval before military action against Iran, Sanders stated: “America’s reputation internationally has been severely damaged and critical military, diplomatic, and intelligence resources have been diverted from the war in Afghanistan – a war I supported, and a country this administration has increasingly neglected.”1 Currently Sanders is calling on key U.S. ally Saudi Arabia (which has beheaded 85 people so far this year) to run the war against Islamic State. Last July, Sanders joined the other 99 senators in passing a resolution backing Israel’s murderous invasion of Gaza.2
Like his fellow senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sanders was involved in negotiations leading to the release of U.S. Agency for International Development “contractor” Alan Gross from imprisonment in Cuba last December, and met with him on the island. Gross was on a spy mission for Washington handing out communications devices to pro-U.S. “dissidents.” The release of Gross was part of an agreement to restore the diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, freeing the last of the Cuban Five who courageously infiltrated gusano terrorist groups in Miami. But while stating that he favors allowing travel to Cuba, Sanders voted in 2001 to maintain the travel ban until Cuba “has released all political prisoners, and extradited all individuals sought by the U.S. on charges of air piracy, drug trafficking and murder.” This is a direct threat to Assata Shakur and others who fled the U.S.’ war on black radicals in the 1970s.
Sanders has also repeatedly supported protectionist and other reactionary measures against China, in line with the Democrats’ saber-rattling campaign against the Chinese deformed workers state.
On the domestic front, an article in Counterpunch (27-29 June 2014) noted that while Sanders voted against the original U.S.A. PATRIOT Act legislation, in 2006 he voted for “legislation that made the remaining fourteen provisions of the Patriot Act permanent and extended the authority of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to conduct ‘roving wiretaps’ and access certain business records....” Similarly, “Sanders voted against the original legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security, but by 2006 he had joined the majority of Congress in passing continued funding of that agency.” In July 2014, Sanders was a co-sponsor of the USA FREEDOM Act, which “is being hyped as a prohibition of the N.S.A.’s controversial mass surveillance practices, but it actually extends the PATRIOT Act for years and opens up new avenues for more invasive forms of government spying” (The Hill, 21 May).
With Obama racking up new records for the number of people deported (2.5 million so far during his presidency), Sanders has repeatedly used populist demagogy railing against immigrant workers. In an official statement congratulating the Senate Judiciary Committee on its anti-immigrant immigration “reform” bill of 2013, Sanders “supported provisions in the measure that would strengthen border enforcement, prevent unscrupulous employers from hiring illegal workers and give legal status to foreign workers needed to keep Vermont’s dairy farms and apple orchards in business. Sanders, however, expressed strong concern that large American corporations in the midst of very high unemployment were using immigration reform to lower wages and benefits for American workers.” 3
Pseudo-Socialist Left Debates the Best Way to Chase After “Bernie”
Before Sanders officially threw his hat in the ring, Progressive Democrats of America set up a Facebook page called “Run Bernie Run! As a Democrat.” Soon “The People for Bernie Sanders” was set up by Occupy activists together with members of the “Left Labor Project,” CODEPINK and others, who resurrected the tired lingo of class collaboration to appeal to “progressive forces to unite behind Sanders” in the 2016 campaign. Jacobin magazine (1 May) chimed in with a piece by its founding editor, Bhaskar Sunkara, urging: “We should welcome Bernie Sanders’ presidential run, while being aware of its limits.”
As for avowed socialists, with their ever-so-slightly-different formulas chasing after a hoped-for new “movement,” the social-democrats tailing after the Democratic Party “socialist” provide a snapshot of what is wrong with what passes for a left in this country. Two groups that are relatively prominent on the left – Socialist Alternative (SAlt) and the International Socialist Organization (ISO) – stand out, although many other organizations share much the same outlook.
Feeling it had broken into big-time politics since the election of Kshama Sawant as a Seattle city council member, SAlt jumped to get a head start in the Bernie biz over a year ago. In an article hopefully titled “Bernie Sanders for President in 2016?” Socialist Alternative newspaper (16 April 2014) wrote that Sanders says that “he wants a dialogue with progressive activists before deciding on whether to run for president and whether he should stand as an independent or within the framework of the Democratic Party.” It helpfully urged Bernie to call a “national conference of progressive, community, and labor organizations” which, “we hope,” would generate enough “momentum” to “persuade Bernie Sanders to take the historic step of running as an independent left candidate for the presidency in 2016.”
Socialist Alternative was practically begging this bourgeois politician and de facto Democrat to run for president, as it earlier did with Ralph Nader. SAlt supporters pushed a Facebook page called “Bernie Sanders, Go Green” (as in Green Party), claiming that this could “radically alter American politics.” To be clear, the Green Party is a minor capitalist party that serves as a home for homeless liberal Democrats who feel that their party has abandoned them. If SAlt was disappointed in its hopes for a Green capitalist Sanders campaign, it nevertheless erupted in rhapsody when he announced his bid: “Bernie Sanders Calls for Political Revolution Against Billionaires,” it wrote (9 May), reveling in the “tremendous wave of enthusiasm” the announcement of his presidential campaign allegedly unleashed.
To cover its rear quarters, the Socialist Alternative article added: “Campaign Needs to Build Independent Political Power.” SAlt states that it considers it a “mistake” for Sanders to run in the Democratic primaries, adding that when he fails to win the Democratic nomination, “Sanders should continue running in the general election as an independent.” It waxes poetic about how this fantasy could generate “a huge impetus towards the building of a new political force to represent the 99%” – the populist catch-phrase of the short-lived Occupy “movement.” But it all depends on “how much pressure Sanders comes under from his own supporters.” It’s all about pressure, you see. Yet, Democrat or not, SAlt vows, “We will be campaigning with Sanders supporters against the corporate politicians….”
If donkeys could fly, pressure would transform the likes of Bernie Sanders into the opposite of what is: a capitalist Democratic politician. So these fake-leftists whip up enthusiasm for “Bernie” supposedly to pressure him to the left, as he helps corral votes for Hillary while ostensibly pressuring her to the left. This is the logic of a pressure group on the Democrats, always on the lookout for new opportunities to work with representatives of this party of capitalist oppression. And as a sop for the ranks, it peddles evergreen hopes of ever-bigger “success” through class collaboration. That is precisely how SAlt’s Sawant has functioned in Seattle. Generating illusions in the Democratic campaign of Bernie Sanders is just the most recent embodiment of the policy followed by generations of leftists in the United States who have helped channel discontent and disillusionment back into capitalist politics.
Among the fond hopes voiced by Socialist Alternative is that, if only he would follow their advice, “Sanders’ campaign could play a critical role in helping to lay the basis for a new political party, a third party.” SAlt’s fawning on “Bernie” has provided an opening for the International Socialist Organization, which was caught flat-footed by Sawant’s win in Seattle, an opportunity to pose as a “socialist” alternative to Socialist Alternative. The ISO argues that Sanders “could have set a very different example, with a far greater chance of success, if he ran for governor in Vermont against the Democratic Party’s incumbent.... In so doing, Sanders could have built momentum for a national third-party alternative to represent workers and the oppressed” (Socialist Worker, 5 May).
So for the ISO it’s momentum and more momentum, adding helpfully: “If Sanders had his heart set on national politics, he could have run for president like Ralph Nader as an independent, opposing both capitalist parties, the Democrats and Republicans.” Meanwhile, Ashley Smith, a leading ISOer, gushes about Sanders that “he’s really electrified a layer of newly-radicalizing activists and people on the left,” that “he’s really hitting on all the key notes, and I really identify with all the people who’ve been galvanized by his campaign,” but that “he’s making a mistake in running inside the Democratic party” (Real News Network, 26 May).
So the distinction between SAlt’s approach and that of the ISO amounts to very small potatoes indeed. After all, both fervently threw themselves into supporting the “independent” capitalist campaign of the anti-immigrant millionaire Ralph Nader (see “Capitalist Nader’s ‘Socialist’ Foot Soldiers,” Revolution No. 2, October 2004). Both yearn for a “third party,” while presenting this as somehow innately radical. ISO leaders have repeatedly run on the Green ticket, from New York to California. While claiming to oppose the Democrats, the ISO celebrated Obama’s election in 2008 as a “watershed event,” emblazoning its journal with his campaign slogan “Yes We Can!” (International Socialist Review, January 2009).
Both SAlt and the ISO are in the business of tailing after whatever excites liberal Democrats, throwing in a little talk of “independence” to cover their fundamental allegiance to capitalist politics.
What’s Trotsky Got to Do With It?
Groups like Socialist Alternative and the ISO present themselves as standing in the tradition of Marx and even, when it suits them, of Lenin and Trotsky. Yet both groups teach their supporters to dismiss as “ultra-leftism” the most basic ideas of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, starting with the most fundamental of all: that Marxism stands for class politics. For those whose guiding light is “relating to people where they’re at” rather than telling the unvarnished truth to the masses, the very idea of a class line in politics is sneeringly derided as sectarian. Yet so long as working people are tied to the parties of the bourgeoisie, whether red, blue or green, they will be chained to the capitalist system of war, poverty and racism.
The question of third parties is a very old one in American politics. Long before “Bernie” came “Teddy” Roosevelt’s 1912 Progressive Party campaign, with a raft of other “third party” capitalist candidates before and since. For Marxists, the fundamental question is not how many parties there are, but what class they represent. While liberals and reformists measure a candidate on a sliding scale of “progressiveness,” Marxists oppose support to any capitalist candidate or party. The bottom line for revolutionary communists, as opposed to these social-democratic reformists, is the political independence of the working class.
Marx was emphatic:“Our politics must be working-class politics. The workers’ party must never be the tagtail of any bourgeois party; it must be independent and have its own policy,” he proclaimed in a September 1871 speech to the First International. The following year, he and Friedrich Engels wrote: “Against the collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes” (“Resolution on the Establishment of Working-Class Parties,” September 1872).
And Trotsky? The ISO has been playing around with talk of Trotsky and Trotskyism in recent years, though its political record and tradition stand entirely counterposed to what the founder of the Fourth International stood for. Meanwhile, those who diligently search SAlt literature can find the occasional reference to Trotsky there.4 Leftists who actually want to be Trotskyists should check out what he had to say on “third parties” in the U.S. Early on in its degeneration, the U.S. Communist Party got sucked into a “Third Party Alliance” which paved the way for the “independent” Progressive Party presidential campaign of Wisconsin governor Robert La Follette in 1924. (For details on this episode, see Bryan D. Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 .)
In his fundamental work against Stalinist opportunism, The Third International After Lenin (1928), Trotsky denounced how “the young and weak American Communist Party [was drawn into] the senseless and infamous adventure of creating a ‘Farmer-Labor party’ around La Follette.” There can be no two-class party, Trotsky insisted. “The misfortune lies precisely in the fact that the epigones of Bolshevik strategy extol maneuvers and flexibility... as the quintessence of this strategy, thereby tearing them away from their historical axis and principled foundation and turning them to unprincipled combinations which, only too often, resemble a squirrel whirling in its cage.” Indeed, “it was not flexibility that served (nor should it serve today) as the basic trait of Bolshevism,” Trotsky insisted, “but rather granite hardness” in the defense of basic class principles, beginning with the revolutionary political independence of the working class.
Trotsky’s 1928 document – smuggled out of Russia by veteran Communist James P. Cannon, which laid the basis for the establishment of the Trotskyist movement in this country – could have been describing SAlt, the ISO and others who justify each new unprincipled maneuver with the claim that it is justified by the need for tactical flexibility.
In 1948, the long-since Stalinized and thoroughly reformist CP backed the “independent” Progressive Party campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s former Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace. U.S. Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon was categorical:
“The Wallace party must be opposed and denounced by every class criterion.... Its differences with the Republican and Democratic parties are purely tactical. There is not a trace of a principled difference anywhere. And by principled difference I mean a class difference.... Bourgeois parties are not the arena for our operation. Our specific task is the class mobilization of the workers against not only the two old parties, but any other capitalist parties which might appear.”
This is the program of authentic Trotskyism which the Internationalist Group stands on in fighting for a revolutionary workers party. If the revolutionary party must be “the memory of the working class,” opportunist pseudo-socialists bank on people having a short memory. The allegedly historic Bernie Sanders campaign will go down in history as yet another episode in ruling-class efforts to deceive and subjugate the workers and oppressed in the service of the Democratic Party. The response of the opportunist left is another chapter in its sorry record of doing the donkey work for such campaigns. The work of building a party dedicated to leading socialist revolution depends on sharp class demarcation from every form of bourgeois politics, even when dressed up in “socialist” colors. ■
- 2.See the video showing the senator yelling “shut up” at critics who protested this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vf2cCdgwgoM
- 3.See www.sanders.senate.gov, 4 June 2013
- 4.The actual politics of both groups are thoroughly social-democratic. The politics of the International Socialist Organization are derived from the current led by the British ex-Trotskyist Tony Cliff, whose “state capitalist” theories served as a “left” cover for support to the anti-Soviet Cold War. Others among the ISO leadership came out of the current founded by Max Shachtman, who denounced Trotsky for defending the USSR in WWII and became a leading right-wing social democrat. Socialist Alternative was established by U.S. supporters of another British social-democratic current, the heirs of Ted Grant, which carried out decades-long “entrism” in Her Majesty’s British Labour Party, claims that police and prison guards are part of the workers movement, and proposed establishing socialism through an act of parliament.