Hammer, Sickle and Four logo
August 2020

Herding Votes for Biden, Pushing More Cash for Cops

Like We Said: Bernie Sanders’
“Political Revolution” Was a Scam

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders embrace at February 7 Democratic presidential primary debate in New Hampshire.   (Photo: Elise Amendola / AP)

By Jacob

Bernie Sanders is at it yet again. With populistic bluster about a “political revolution against the billionaire class,” the senator from Vermont who calls himself a democratic socialist drew wide support from youth disenchanted by capitalism’s escalating crises. His foot soldiers revved them up, registered them as Democrats and lined them up for the November 2020 vote. In April, Sanders dropped out of the primaries, throwing his weight behind the embodiment of the “Democratic establishment” his followers had reviled: Joe Biden. Like we said from the beginning: Sanders’ so-called political revolution was and always has been a political scam, in the service of the Democrats.

So now Bernie Sanders proclaims that Joe Biden could be the “most progressive president” since Franklin D. Roosevelt. This PR pitch came after the “Unity Task Forces,” which the presumptive Democratic nominee and Bernie’s team set up in May, released policy recommendations for a Biden presidency. Coming from Sanders, this was high praise indeed. Like his ally Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who snagged a prized post as co-chair of Biden’s climate taskforce, Sanders holds up Democratic imperialist icon FDR and his New Deal as a model and inspiration. In fact, Sanders explains “democratic socialism” as a continuation of FDR’s New Deal.1

The comparison is telling. Roosevelt’s “New Deal coalition” was instrumental in chaining labor, African Americans, Latinos and would-be leftists to the Democratic Party’s machinery for administering the capitalist system of exploitation, imperialism and racist repression. Today, Bernie, AOC and other “progressives” are working overtime to reinforce those chains. That they’re doing this in tandem with Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer et al. has upset some of Sanders’ followers. But in fact, he always stated explicitly that he would throw his weight behind whoever the Democrats wound up nominating.

Thus “socialist” Sanders praising Joe “shoot ’em in the leg” Biden2 is the closing act in his “political revolution,” a drama that was always meant to bolster a largely discredited Democratic Party with the votes of the young and discontented. As revolutionary Marxists, we have highlighted this from the beginning. This has meant stating forthrightly that far from any kind of revolution, Sanders’ campaign has been an effort to update the timeworn mechanisms of capitalist electoral politics, to make them more effective at deceiving the exploited and oppressed. “No, Bernie Sanders Is Not a Socialist,” we insisted (Revolution No. 12, March 2016).3 Telling it like it is – which is the first duty of Marxists, who fight for a workers revolution to overthrow the capitalist order – contrasts sharply with the pretexts and gimmicks that reformist groups cooked up to justify their quest to cash in on Bernie-mania. To help peddle imperialist Democratic liberalism as supposedly some kind of socialism was, we pointed out, a textbook example of what Marx and Lenin called opportunism.

Beating the Drums for the Party of Hiroshima and Vietnam War

Bernie Sanders endorses Hillary Clinton at meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 12 July 2016.   (Photo: Andrew Harnik / AP)

It’s never been a secret: “What I am trying to do is revitalize the Democratic Party, bring in the young people, bring in the working people,” Sanders told ABC News (27 November 2017). Time and again, he has reiterated this objective, in the service of U.S. imperialism’s oldest and most trusted political party, responsible for waging one U.S. war after another.

As we emphasized in an in-depth article explaining “No, Bernie Sander is Not a Socialist” (Revolution No. 12, March 2016):

“The political function of Bernie Sanders’ campaign is not to sharpen the struggle against capitalist reaction but to blur consciousness and lead those increasingly fed up with the status quo back into supporting the Democratic Party of war, racism and police terror.”

Against illusions in Democratic (Party) “Socialists,” we wrote in the same article:

“The Democratic Party is and has always been a machine for subjugating the working people and oppressed to the capitalist class, going back to the party’s origins as the party of slavery, then Jim Crow. Its crimes include boundless oppression against the peoples of Latin America, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, imperialism’s genocidal war against the people of Vietnam....”

Today, Sanders stumping for Biden, the godfather of mass incarceration, should come as no surprise. It was only a matter of time. He said all along he’d work for the eventual Democratic nominee. Four years ago, he did the same, for Barack Obama’s war-hawk secretary of state. “I did my best to see that Hillary Clinton get elected,” Sanders told CNN (10 November 2016). In the lead-up to election day, he herded votes for her in 21 rallies, by his count. In the same interview, the “socialist” (sic!) senator segued into vowing: “I intend to work with President Trump on those issues where he will, in fact, work for the middle class and working families in this country.” As we have noted since the beginning, Sanders is a bourgeois politician – and all this comes with the territory of bourgeois politics.

Quite a few young people who thought supporting Sanders had something to do with “socialism” – or might at least improve things under capitalism – balk at backing Biden. One function of the Biden/Sanders Unity Task Forces was to mobilize up-and-coming “progressives” and members of the Bernie team to overcome such doubts and hesitations. The objective: firmly refastening the shackles of subjugation to capitalism’s Democratic Party. Joining Ocasio-Cortez et al. in this task are the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA, of which AOC is a member), the Jacobin magazine crew (intellectual technicians for packaging capitalist politics as “socialism”), and many others. To youth who may suspect they have been swindled, the message is, in effect: Nothing to see here, move on – onward to November.

Yet under the impact of U.S. capitalism’s triple pandemic of racist police terror, coronavirus and economic devastation, many workers and youth are increasingly open to radical politics. Berned once, Berned twice, some of those who supported Sanders feel conned (which they were). And despite intensive efforts by Democrats and their left assistants to channel protesters against police terror into illusory Democratic schemes to “reform”/“defund” capitalism’s police, determined opponents of racism want to get to the root of systemic oppression. Marxism is essential for doing this, and for showing the link between effective struggle to uproot racism and the fight to unchain the power of the working class and oppressed from the Democratic Party.

Sanders’ political record is littered with examples of how he has worked to uphold the interests of U.S. imperialism. He voted to support U.S. wars and interventions in Yugoslavia (in 1998 and 1999), Somalia (in 1993), Libya (in 2011) and Afghanistan (in 2001). He voted against the Iraq war in 2004 – and then voted to fund it in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013. In fact, as far back as 1998 Sanders voted for the “Iraq Liberation Act,” the regime-change measure that helped pave the way for the imperialist carnage. He voted for the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, written by Joe Biden and signed into law by Bill Clinton, which ramped up the mass incarceration system, and for the USA Freedom Act, which renewed and expanded government domestic spying.

Kamala Harris (in police jacket), then the California Attorney General, pictured with Border Patrol agents at U.S.-Mexico border fence in 2011. As Biden has now chosen the former California top cop as his running mate,
Sanders will be herding votes for her too.   (Photo: Office of the Attorney General of California)

Sanders said he “held [his] nose” and voted funds for Trump’s border wall (CNN, 24 June 2018), arguing that this was in exchange for tenuous protections for some undocumented immigrants. He said “we have to protect the dreamers,” as he backed a bill that would prohibit them from sponsoring their parents for legal status. He sang the praises of deceased war criminals John McCain and George H.W. Bush. He gave “progressive” cover to the U.S.-backed coup attempt in Venezuela (which fellow “democratic socialists” Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib voted $20 million to support), calling on Venezuela to let in U.S. arms shipments masquerading as “humanitarian aid.”

We Told the Truth About It

When Sanders conceded in April, the response from prominent campaign stalwarts was that the “movement” is “Bigger Than Bernie” (title of a book by Jacobin apparatchiks Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht). But as we have said from the beginning, this “movement” is a move deeper and deeper into the Democratic Party.

Genuine socialists do not support candidates of capitalist parties, let alone one responsible for as much death and destruction as the imperialist Democratic Party. “Left” Bernie backers tend to shrug all this off and mutter “well, nobody’s perfect.” Yet opposition to the militarism of the ruling class and its terrorization of our working-class brothers and sisters abroad is not some kind of bargaining chip. Nor are the rights of immigrants and refugees who enter the U.S. fleeing destruction and poverty made in U.S.A. As Marxists we fight for international socialist revolution. Part of that struggle means fighting for the defeat of “our own” imperialist ruling class.

So who told the truth about the Bernie Sanders campaigns for the 2016 and 2020 Democratic nominations?

“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…. If donkeys could fly, pressure would transform the likes of Bernie Sanders into the opposite of what he is: a capitalist Democratic politician…. 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.”
– “Bernie Sanders and the Pressure Politics of the Opportunist Left,” The Internationalist No. 40, Summer 2015

That was from the year before Sanders lost the Democratic nomination the first time around. Endorsing Hillary Clinton, in line with his promises, he then went on to say: “I also look forward to working with Secretary Clinton to transform the Democratic Party” (The Atlantic, 16 June 2016).

Today, Bernie is playing the same role as in 2016, as he coaches Biden on how best to pander to his disappointed supporters:

“I think what Joe is gonna have to do – and he’s beginning to move in that direction – is to say to those working class people, say to those young people, say to those minorities, ‘Listen, I understand your situation’.”
– “Sanders says his supporters will vote for Biden but he needs to court them,” The Guardian, 17 May 2020
Mourning in America for Jacobin & Co. after Biden beat out Bernie.

Despite claims made by some self-proclaimed socialists that the Bernie campaign would create the “momentum” to eventually give way to a break from the Democrats, the opposite has happened. As large numbers of young Bernie supporters joined the DSA, they (and left groups tailing them) were led deeper into Democratic Party politics. DSA-promoted candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib became stars in the Democratic firmament. Even before winning a second term in her Congressional district, AOC is moving into the big leagues with her inclusion in Biden’s campaign brain trust.

Opportunist left groups have provided different rationales for why they tailed Bernie. The now-defunct International Socialist Organization gushed about Bernie having put “socialism in the air.” The “International Marxist Tendency” urged the veteran imperialist politician to run as an independent and help form a “mass socialist party.” Socialist Alternative took it a step further, organizing a “Movement4Bernie” to help channel youth into his campaign.

At the same time as it sought to promote a revolutionary image of itself, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) worked to aid the Sanders campaign. “Although we are not Democrats, we encourage those voting in the upcoming Democratic Party primaries to vote for Bernie Sanders,” the PSL wrote in its newspaper Liberation (4 February). That’s a little like saying: for all those drinking the Kool-Aid, though of course we don’t, we recommend the Sanders Blast flavor. Characterizing his campaign as a “vessel for a progressive, vaguely socialist insurgency within the confines of the Democratic Party,” they went on in the same article to promise: “If Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination … the PSL will not run candidates in battleground swing states.”

What Sanders Calls “Democratic Socialism”

“The truth is,” Sanders told CBS News (25 February), “nothing I am saying is radical” (though many leftists kept claiming it was). Liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman penned an op-ed during the primaries explaining:

“Bernie Sanders isn’t actually a socialist in any normal sense of the term. He doesn’t want to nationalize our major industries and replace markets with central planning.… He’s basically what Europeans would call a social democrat.… So why does Sanders call himself a socialist? I’d say that it’s mainly about personal branding, with a dash of glee at shocking the bourgeoisie.”
– “Bernie Sanders Isn’t a Socialist,” New York Times, 13 February

Bernie’s and AOC’s evocation of the New Deal and their calls for the Democratic Party to live up to its heritage as the party of FDR, the commander-in-chief who interned Japanese Americans in detention camps and waged imperialist war with a Jim Crow army, highlight the point that their “democratic socialism” is nothing more than Democratic Party liberalism.

In line with this, the Kennedy clan looms large, as in the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A feature article in the New Yorker (23 July 2018) by the magazine’s editor noted that she worked in Edward Kennedy’s Boston office while attending university. “When I asked her about her political heroes,” she “named Robert F. Kennedy. In college, reading his speeches – ‘that was my jam,’ she said.” As the Internationalist press noted:

“RFK is the guy who bugged Martin Luther King’s phones, waged a union-busting campaign against the Teamsters, and tried to wipe out the Cuban Revolution with big brother JFK, from the Bay of Pigs to threatening to blow up the world in the Cuban Missile Crisis, to launching endless attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.”
– “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the Rescue of the Democratic Party,” The Internationalist No. 53, September-October 2018

A mainstream magazine aimed at millennials, Quartz (29 October 2015), took it to a logical though absurd extreme in a piece titled “If elected, Bernie Sanders wouldn’t be America’s first socialist president.” Their ridiculous claim is that public services, social welfare programs, etc. are all “socialist” parts of a capitalist economy. (At Hunter College, some Sanders campaigners handed out post cards pushing the same idea.) In addition to FDR and John F. Kennedy, they cite Harry Truman, who twice dropped the atom bomb on Japanese civilians (in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and led the genocidal U.S. war in Korea.

An image widely circulated on the internet in 2016, titled “Democratic Socialist Presidents of the United States,” based on the same claims, shows where this kind of “malarkey” (to use one of Joe Biden’s favorite words) can lead. It depicts Bernie in a line of presidents including FDR; Lyndon B. Johnson, who rained bombs, napalm and Agent Orange on the people of Vietnam; and Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose administration overthrew the governments of Iran, Guatemala and the Congo to back up U.S. imperialist interests. For good measure, it throws in Theodore Roosevelt, the colonialist racist who oversaw the U.S. counterinsurgency war of mass murder in the Philippines.

Cops = “Socialism”? Hell No!

Democratic politicians have been working overtime to placate protests against racist police terror with illusory schemes to “reform” the police. The one that has gained the most traction is the slogan of “defunding” the police (by which they mean reducing their budget, or claiming to do so). Thus, Democrats call to “shuffle some of that money around,” in Nancy Pelosi’s words (MSNBC, 8 June). Yet a cheaper nightstick will still crack a skull. Some reformists even promote the illusion that the ruling class might dissolve its own repressive forces. This fantasy can only politically disarm the exploited and oppressed in the face of a ruthless enemy. Racist terror is intrinsic to American capitalism and only revolution can bring justice.

On the question of the police, Sanders has actually marked himself off from some “progressive” Democrats by coming out against “defunding” in favor of increasing unding for the cops.

Bernie Sanders was endorsed by the cop “union” in Burlington, Vermont when he ran for mayor, winning the position in 1981. But even if you didn’t know that, we’ve all heard Bernie’s standard campaign trail refrain many a time: “When you go to your public library, when you call your Fire Department or the Police Department, what do you think you’re calling? … These are socialist institutions” (New York Times, 19 October 2015).

Hell no. The police are the armed fist of the capitalist state, terrorizing black and brown people on a daily basis, breaking strikes and escorting scabs (strikebreakers) across picket lines, as has been the case ever since the union movement started. We call to oust the police and their “unions” from the labor movement, for labor/black/immigrant mobilization against racist attacks and to stop deportations, and for workers strikes against racist cop terror.

Political Independence of the Working Class

Key to all of this is the basic Marxist principle that to defend its most basic rights and interests, and use its power to uproot all forms of oppression, the working class must win its own political independence, against the parties, politicians and institutions of the exploiters and oppressors.

With police killings of black people continuing unabated and American capitalism showing ever more blatantly its inability to meet the population’s basic needs, it is vital that we define our terms and know who our friends and who our enemies are. On top of 150,000+ deaths, many of them preventable, from the coronavirus pandemic, the working class faces large-scale unemployment, impoverishment, cuts to services and an anticipated avalanche of mass evictions. The upsurge of protest after the police murder of George Floyd points to further social struggle ahead. For young people who see the need to fight effectively and avoid the many traps and pitfalls set by those whose business it is to deceive and demobilize us, political clarity is essential.

Part of the struggle for that political clarity has been forthrightly showing the real role of “Democratic socialist” politicians like Bernie Sanders and AOC, and those who have assiduously spread illusions in them. The fight against racist oppression, capitalist exploitation and imperialist war can never be waged within the Democratic Party – and given its central role in U.S. capitalism’s political set-up, that fight is largely a struggle against the Democratic Party. To fight for socialism, it is crucial to break once and for all with the Democrats and build a revolutionary workers party to lead the multiracial, multi-ethnic working class to power. ■

  1. 1. Mainstream media have noted this in articles such as “Bernie Sanders’s New Deal Socialism,” The New Yorker, 20 November 2015; “Bernie Sanders: ‘Democratic Socialist’ Is Just a Synonym for New Deal Liberal,” New York Magazine, 23 April 2019; “Bernie Sanders Pitches ‘Democratic Socialism’ as Next Stage of FDR’s New Deal,” HuffPost, 12 June 2019, etc.
  2. 2. A week after the police murder of George Floyd, in a speech to Wilmington, Delaware African American community leaders, Biden said cops should be trained to shoot people “in the leg instead of the heart.”
  3. 3. This article is reprinted in the Internationalist Group pamphlet DSA: Fronting for the Democrats (2018), together with key materials on the real nature and history of “democratic socialism” and its services to U.S. imperialism.