Tactical flexibility, political principle

Bernie Sanders should stand as an independent socialist in the presidential election, argues Eddie Ford

Quite remarkably, and very encouragingly, Bernie Sanders remains in the game - just. Last week he crushed Hillary Clinton in the western states of Washington, Alaska and Hawaii, taking at least 70% of the vote in all three, including a whopping 82% in the case of Alaska. As an interesting addendum, on March 21 Sanders convincingly won the Democrats Abroad primary by 69% to 31% on a turnout up 50% from 2008 - getting nine delegates to Clinton’s four and defeating her in 167 of 170 countries.

Buoyed up, Sanders claimed that these decisive wins opened a clear “path to victory” for his nomination, so “don’t let anybody tell you we can’t win the nomination or win the general election”. The next battles will be fought in New York and Wisconsin - then a round of large north-eastern states with closed primaries: ie, only registered party members are allowed to vote. Sanders, however, tends to do a lot better in open caucuses - where he can appeal to independent and non-affiliated voters.

Meanwhile, the Vermont senator continued his scathing attacks against the “obscene” big money behind Clinton - citing a fundraising dinner hosted by actor George Clooney, where supporters were invited to pay as much as $353,000 per ticket. He also pointed out that Clinton relies on Wall Street and corporate donors, as well as political action committees known as ‘super pacs’. In a possible sign that his anti-corporate message might be hitting home, a recent poll of 3,000 likely Democratic voters gave a clear majority in favour of Sanders. Yet he still faces a daunting uphill battle. According to the Associated Press, Clinton currently leads by 1,243 delegates to 975. But, when the superdelegates are added to the count, you get a totally different picture. These unelected delegates - consisting of “distinguished” party leaders, such as former presidents, senators, house leaders and governors - are free to support any candidate for nomination at the party’s convention. Naturally, such people are massively biased in favour of Clinton, currently by 469 to 29 - meaning that she is significantly ahead by 1,712 to 1,004 in the race to reach 2,383 delegates. The Daily News ran a story about how “every single” New York superdelegate they contacted said they would “never” back Sanders - regardless of who actually won the primary.1 On this basis, Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, has confidently stated that it is “impossible” for Sanders to catch up.

Sanders also faces an additional financial hurdle. Despite the very impressive number of small donations to his campaign (in January he received a record 3.25 million individual contributions, totalling $20 million), it is not clear whether he can financially make it to June. In turn, this only emphasises how urgently he needs to win Wisconsin on April 5 to maintain the “momentum” he believes is behind him. Frankly, in order to stand any chance at all, Sanders needs to win big yet again in New York on April 19 - which has 291 delegates up for grabs. Then on April 26 Pennsylvania and four other eastern states will be polling, offering 463 delegates between them. Without scooping up about two-thirds of these delegates, Sanders’ chances dwindle to zero.


Bernie Sanders has declared that if he fails to win the Democratic nomination, then he will back Clinton for president. Back in December 2014 he told the New York Magazine that he would not run as an independent and “play spoiler”.2

We in the CPGB think this is seriously mistaken. When Clinton inevitably wins the Democratic nomination, Sanders should not call for a vote for her, but instead stand as an independent socialist - whatever the considerable problems with his understanding of the term. And if he were to split the vote and let in Donald Trump or Ted Cruz - so what? His campaign could form the raw material for a working class party in the US - a huge step forward in historical terms. Interestingly, recent polling indicates that 56% of Democrats now have a “favourable” view of socialism - a quite remarkable statistic, given that America is the land of rampant anti-communism and the cult of rugged individualism.

It would be an extremely good idea if we could continue to make use of the space Sanders has opened up - something that dogmatic leftists fail to understand. One of them is Alan Gibson of the International Bolshevik Tendency. He scolds us for critically supporting the “capitalist politician”, Bernie Sanders, and for making historical comparisons with Marx’s strong support for that undeniably bourgeois politician, Abraham Lincoln (Letters, March 24).

Yes, says the comrade, it was “wholly correct” for Marx to back Lincoln, because that aided the “completion of the bourgeois democratic revolution”, but since the “advent of imperialism”, on no account must Marxists support a non-working class politician - or, in this particular case, someone who says he is a socialist but stands within a bourgeois party. What nonsense.

Does this ‘iron law’ apply to anti-imperialist struggles too? We were under the distinct impression that the IBT advocated “military support” for all forces, including totally bourgeois and reactionary ones, that come into conflict with imperialism. The IBT states that revolutionaries “side militarily with any indigenous forces - including the reactionary Taliban, Isis, al Nusra and al Qa’eda - in confrontations with the ‘democratic’ imperialists”.3

But, of course, the comrade absurdly separates military support from political support in a totally non-Marxist way. We in the CPGB, on the other hand, subscribe to the idea à la Clausewitz that war is the continuation of politics by other means: the obverse being that under imperialism ‘peace’ is just a prelude to war. Anyway, with regards to Sanders and election tactics in general, Marx and Engels thankfully were not dogmatists like comrade Gibson.

Indeed, under certain circum-stances it is possible to support the Tories. Thus in 1893, Engels says that Keir Hardie “publicly declares that [Irish nationalist Charles Stewart] Parnell’s experiment … ought to be repeated at the next election and, where it is impossible to nominate a Labour candidate, one should vote for the Conservatives, in order to show the Liberals the power of the party”. While Engels himself “recommended” this policy “under definite circumstances”, it was important to “announce it as a possible tactical move” only.4

In other words, Engels was saying it could be permissible to vote Tory in order to force concessions from the Liberals - the main point being, however, that Marxists aim for the utmost tactical flexibility when it comes to elections, but always within the larger framework of a general political programme. The central aim of our electoral interventions is always to promote the independent organisation of the working class. Or, to put it another way, our electoral tactics therefore have to be highly responsive in order to promote the ‘few ideas’ (maybe just one basic idea) that can be argued with as many people as possible under election conditions - and which have an actual chance of being developed. The central point is that all such issues have to be grasped as tactics within a framework of principled aims.

US left

Unfortunately, many on the US left have adopted a position of sectarian dismissal in relation to Bernie Sanders. The comrades of the International Socialist Organisation, expelled in 2001 from the International Socialist Tendency by the British Socialist Workers Party, last year presented us with a ‘socialist FAQ’ on Bernie Sanders and the left. In fact, we discover, Sanders’ candidacy “represents a capitulation to the two-party status quo and capitalist domination of elections”.5 Instead, the ISO comrades recommend: “We need to win the new left born out of Occupy, public-sector union struggles and the Black Lives Matter movement to breaking with the Democratic Party and building an electoral alternative as a complement to struggle from below.”6

More straightforwardly, Socialist Action - affiliated to the Fourth International - dismisses Sanders as “today’s central sheepherder of the unwary back into the Democratic Party fold”.7 Sanders’ “current assignment” is to “corral working class discontent back into the capitalist framework”. Even more bluntly still, and with absolute predictability, the Spartacist League denounces Sanders as an “imperialist running dog” - no marks for originality - whose “radical liberal acolytes are leading youth straight into the demoralising dead end of the Democratic Party”.8

On the other hand, we get a rather more sane view from Socialist Alternative - part of the Committee for a Workers’ International led by Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party in England and Wales. SA welcomed Sanders’ call for a “political revolution” against the “billionaires and oligarchs” that rule the US. The Vermont senator, it argues, has “opened up an urgently needed debate about an alternative to capitalism: democratic socialism”.9 Correctly, the comrades add that if he does not win the Democratic nomination, Sanders “should keep going as an independent and not support Hillary”.

There is a certain irony in this, of course. When it comes to the May 5 local elections in England, SA's comrades in SPEW are intending to stand candidates against Jeremy's Corbyn's Labour Party - a bourgeois workers' party, when all is said and done.



1 . www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/new-york-superdelegates-largely-back-clinton-sanders-article-1.2581729.

2 . http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/12/bernie-sanders-for-president-why-not.html.

3 . www.bolshevik.org.

4 . www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1893/letters/93_01_24.htm.

5 . http://socialistworker.org/2015/05/27/an-faq-on-sanders-and-the-left.

6 . http://socialistworker.org/2015/05/05/problem-bernie-sanders.

7 . http://socialistaction.org/?s=sanders.

8 . http://www.icl-fi.org/english/wv/1083/sanders.html.

9 . www.socialistalternative.org/2016/02/01/movement4bernie-takes-country.