Obscuring class politics
Phil Duncan condemns socialists who supported the Bernie Sanders campaign and counterposes it to building a Marxist party
Bernie Sanders’ rallies have attracted tens of thousands
Under the Obama administration things have continued to get worse for the American working class. In 2008, the richest one percent held 33.8% of wealth; by 2014, they held 36.6%. The best-off 10% now own over 75% of wealth. Some 90% of the population - the working class and much of the middle class - have to make do with the remaining 25% of wealth. Poverty rates have been noticeably higher during the Obama presidency than during the preceding Bush years, a period in which it also grew.1
Meanwhile Obama - or ‘O’Bomber’, as he is widely known on the left - continues to intervene militarily in other people’s countries, helping wreak havoc in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in particular. He has significantly out-spent the Bush regime in military spending and deported more migrants than any other president in American history. Under Obama deportations are up 23% on the George W Bush years and he is closing in on having deported more people than the combined total of the 19 US presidents from 1892 to 2000.
Black Americans continue to be incarcerated at rates far higher than whites. While making up about 12%-13% percent of the population, they account for 35% of those behind bars. Barely 50% of young black males graduate from high school. Of the entire black male population born since 1970, a third have now been incarcerated at some time.
After the Bush presidency, with its wars, the global financial crisis, attacks on abortion rights and the continuing denial of equality to black Americans in particular, a great deal of hope was invested in Obama, especially with him being the first black president. Much of that naive hope - as if any Democrat politician would offer anything other than what Obama has done in practice - is long dead.
But this disillusionment with the Republican and Democratic party establishments has opened the way for so-called ‘outsiders’ - a trend which has given rise to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Sanders managed to beat the widely-loathed corporate feminist, Hillary Clinton, in a number of working class primaries - for instance, Michigan, where old blue-collar industries have decayed and become impoverished. Trump, meanwhile, has swept all before him in the Republican primaries.
In fact, neither Sanders nor Trump are ‘outsiders’. This is most obvious in the case of Trump - a multi-billionaire who has convinced a layer of alienated blue-collar workers that he understands them, while playing the xenophobic, populist card, which blames people like migrants for their problems. Trump has even posed as a champion of higher wages and talked about the possibility of a workers’ party - although by such a party he means a cross-class party of proletarians, hard-working small businesspeople and hard-working capitalists like himself. At the same time, he has sought to mobilise Christian and Tea Party elements of the Republican Party, by dumping some of his more liberal personal views and championing opposition to abortion.
While Trump is clearly part of the ruling class, Sanders is far from an outsider too. He virtually always - 98% of the time - votes with the Democratic Party leadership in the Senate. This includes voting for all their measures to fund imperialist war and those which are part and parcel of the bipartisan campaign to criminalise young black males. He even supported the 2014 Israeli slaughter in Gaza.
As leading anti-war campaign Cindy Sheehan has noted,
Sanders’ campaign is not about challenging the establishment, but about supporting it. The candidate himself has already pledged support for whomever ultimately receives the nomination of the Democratic Party and he has supported proven corporate candidates as Bill Clinton, John Kerry and Barack Obama.2
Sanders’ support, then, is not really based on a logical examination of his record, but on his leftish rhetoric - for instance, saying he would like free tertiary education appeals to the liberal middle class and so he has received massive support from students in the primary contests with Clinton. At the same time, Sanders refuses to champion migrant workers’ rights; indeed, he helps strengthen American nationalism by blaming China and other countries, along with freer trade, as being at the heart of the worsening position of American workers. And he has taken this to its logical conclusion by voting for anti-migrant worker measures like the ‘anti-tunnel’ bill, which sought to further criminalise undocumented workers. He denounces banks, but this is a long-time populist favourite - capital needs banks, but resents having to pay them a chunk of the surplus value gathered from the exploitation of the working class, and banks tighten the screws on small businesspeople.
The most serious problem with Sanders, however, is that he is part of the great bane of the US left ever since the 1930s - namely, lack of political clarity in relation to the Democratic Party. The Democrats are not, and never have been, any sort of workers’ party - degenerated, deformed, bourgeois workers or any other such beast. They are a capitalist party, originally indeed the party of the southern slave-owners and then, after the civil war, the party of the Ku Klux Klan and the Jim Crow system. It was only in the 1930s, under Franklin Roosevelt, that they began to very partially embrace forms of welfare-statism. But even then, in the south, they remained the chief party of the most reactionary racist elements of society, fighting tooth and nail against the civil rights movement. Historically, across the 20th century, they have been the chief party of imperialist war as well, leading the US into the two imperialist world wars, Korea and Vietnam.
Yet the dominant sections of the US left, from the Communist Party to the liberal left, and even sections of Maoism (and now Trotskyists like Socialist Alternative, the US section of the Committee for a Workers’ International) have failed to draw the class line in relation to the Democrats. In 1964 large chunks of the left went ‘part of the way with LBJ’, claiming that the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, was a warmongering maniac. The result was a landslide for Lyndon Baines Johnson, who rewarded his left supporters by invading the Dominican Republic and installing a vicious dictatorship there, by massively escalating US involvement in Indochina, killing and wounding millions of its inhabitants, turning millions more into refugees and decimating large parts of the ecology of the region.
As a massive anti-Vietnam war movement grew, and sections of the people radicalised by that war turned to revolutionary ideas, it was necessary to have an ‘anti-war’ presidential candidate to soak up the dissent and pull it back into mainstream politics. So in 1972 the Democrats ran George McGovern. Later, in the 1980s, Jesse Jackson and his ‘Rainbow Coalition’ played a similar role, pulling progressive people back into the orbit of the Democratic Party and establishment politics.
This is the most salutary fact about the Sanders campaign. If anything, Sanders is to the right of where Jesse Jackson was over a generation ago. Yet Socialist Alternative’s most well-known figure, Kshama Sawant, repeating the old approach of the CP in relation to ‘progressive’ Democrats, gushes that the Sanders’ campaign has been “historic” and his “anti-corporate insurgent campaign” has “transformed the entire landscape of US politics”. In the same speech she even endorsed his economic nationalism.3 Far from transforming the Sanders campaign into an anti-establishment - let alone genuinely socialist - campaign, Socialist Alternative’s involvement as cheerleaders for “Bernie”, as they call this capitalist politician, has pulled it to the right. They have thoroughly obscured class politics, not merely accepting that workers’ choice is limited to this or that capitalist politician within the Democratic Party - Sanders versus Clinton - but actively championing the attempt of a committed Democrat to win the party’s presidential nomination.
A key slogan of Socialist Alternative is to call for “a party of the 99%”. They call for Sanders to run as an independent when Clinton is crowned as the Democratic Party presidential candidate in Philadelphia at the end of July. They fail to point out that the role of Sanders is not to challenge the ruling rich, but to soak up discontent and draw it back into the Democratic Party fold.
“What is to prevent Bernie running as an independent or as a candidate with Jill Stein as a Green Party candidate?” But that is the wrong question for any Marxist. The question ought to be: ‘What is to prevent the anti-capitalist left, most especially its largest groups (the International Socialist Organisation and Socialist Alternative), running a joint ticket to put forward the ideas of Marxism to workers and all the oppressed?’
In a wealthy land that has traditionally lacked a social democratic movement, sections of the ostensibly revolutionary left are consistently drawn - and pushed - towards filling the vacuum left by the absence of a mass social democratic political party. In the 1960s and 70s, the US Socialist Workers Party played the part of a left social democratic movement; today it looks like Socialist Alternative has decided to occupy that ground.
What kind of party?
Socialist Alternative has mainly grown through presenting itself as an organisation which fights militantly for social democratic/populist-style reforms. It has continued to do this throughout its involvement in the Sanders campaign - a campaign which cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be said to be based on independent class politics. Like many such groups, it prefers to work with people to its right - even people who are part and parcel of mainstream capitalist politics - than with others on the left to provide a political alternative to all the capitalist politicians, including Sanders.
An alternative would be an unashamedly anti-capitalist campaign, conducted on the basis of Marxist politics. For instance, a campaign with Kshama Sawant as presidential candidate and a leading, publicly-known figure from the ISO as vice-presidential candidate could have had the potential to rally thousands of workers and students and educate them in the importance of independent class politics.
Instead, the sectarianism of Socialist Alternative, rooted in its membership of a global sect-building project, the CWI, has led to putting the needs of its own organisation ahead of the needs of the class struggle - it thinks being involved in the Sanders campaign can offer it substantial recruitment possibilities - and building a Marxist party. SA’s actions have helped obscure class politics by supporting and cheerleading for a capitalist politician - moreover a politician of one of the two main parties of US imperialism. The enthusiasm for an alternative to the two-headed political hydra of American capitalism has, as a result, largely been channelled into support for someone committed to the existing political system and who, when defeated by Hillary Clinton, is likely to fall in behind her. This is more likely to spread confusion and demoralisation than result in political clarity and serious party-building, although the two main left groups might take solace from picking up a few recruits.
The Spark group, American co-thinkers of Lutte Ouvrière, made a crucial point in a major article on the Trump and Sanders candidacies:
There is not a significant part of the working class who know they are part of a class, different and apart from other classes. But the lack of a party is also a cause - that is, with no organised political expression, the workers don’t recognise themselves as a class. And they can more easily fall for the garbage peddled by rightwing demagogues like Trump, or allow themselves to be sucked right back into the Democratic Party by a ‘populist’ who defines ‘revolution’ as an election campaign. It is a vicious circle - one that has to be broken.
The Sanders campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, and the support of people like Socialist Alternative, does not contribute to breaking that circle.
The momentum around the Sanders campaign, however - and even, to some extent, around Trump - indicates that significant sections of workers want something different, something anti-establishment. The need for a partyist project on the American anti-capitalist left - the creation of a Marxist party - is urgent. However, a combination of political opportunism and organisational sectarianism seems likely to continue to block the formation of such a party - one that, even in the context of the current weakness of the working class, could have an active membership of thousands.
Kshama Sawant’s speech at a Socialist Alternative’s educational gathering earlier this year was interrupted at one point by people calling from the floor for her to run. Her response was that this would mean “getting ahead of ourselves”. But why? Why must Marxist politics always be put off to some future time?
1. See the graph at: www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2015/08/17/432578282/fact-check-is-it-obamas-fault-that-poverty-has-grown.
3. See, for instance, her address to a Sanders rally in Seattle on March 15 2016: www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TAzgSmGxwA.