Bernie Sanders: his campaign challenged the shibboleths of many on the left

Overdrawn lessons

The USA needs socialism, writes Jim Creegan, not a democratic revolution.

Paul Demarty’s ‘Lessons being learned’ is a peculiar article (Weekly Worker March 12). He argues that the Sanders Democratic primary campaign is, on the one hand, teaching the Communist Party (CPUSA) and the remaining Harringtonites in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) the futility of lesser-evilism. Sanders, he writes, has demonstrated that Democratic Party voters can put into serious contention someone further to the left than the solidly pro-capitalist candidates that lesser-evilists have resigned themselves to supporting in the past for fear of the Republican right. (In 2016, Demarty observes, the CPUSA even supported Clinton over Sanders!)

On the other hand, he asserts, the campaign has cast into doubt the “shibboleth” of the far left - held by the now defunct International Socialist Organization, Socialist Alternative until recently and (somewhat less dogmatically) by the present writer in 2016 - that the Democrats should be shunned in principle as one of the ‘twin parties of capitalism’, and that a real workers’ party can only emerge from extra-parliamentary struggles. A leftward-trending mass movement, he points out, has arisen both within the electoral arena and inside the Democratic Party.

It is, however, when he comes to considering the future implications of these lessons that Demarty takes a curious turn. He concludes with a reflection on the American past more akin to British Whig historians like Thomas Babington Macaulay and GM Trevelyan, who view British history as an evolution toward liberal institutions, than to any version of Marxism. He seems to see America’s two revolutions - the War of Independence and the Civil War - as imperfect approximations of the ideal of popular democracy, which can only find fulfilment in a third, democratic revolution - on this, more below. But first let me turn to Demarty’s estimate of the Democratic presidential primaries, now officially still underway, but in reality already decided for Biden.

Demarty seems to underestimate the rout of Sanders in the primaries. Although I never doubted the ultimate necessity of breaking with the Democrats, I did, in several articles written since 2016, entertain the possibility that the impulse for such a separation may originate within the party itself. While not excluded even now, that possibility seems much less immediate. If, as I speculated in my last article (‘Primary contradictions’ Weekly Worker March 6 2020), Sanders had arrived at the Democratic convention in July with a plurality of delegates and been deprived of the nomination through last-minute manoeuvres by the party brass, many of his followers might have walked out and refused to support a centrist nominee.

The unpleasant fact, however, is that Sanders was not cheated in smoke-filled rooms, but repudiated at the polls. Although the other centrist contenders did line up behind Biden with warp speed, once their own chances had faded, key democratic constituencies - middle class professionals (as expected) and (more disappointingly) blacks as well as white working class voters in the deindustrialising Midwestern states - went overwhelmingly for Biden. Young and Latino voters did favour Sanders, but did not show up in the big numbers he was counting on to counterbalance the high turnout of those over 45. The latter were apparently persuaded by the media blitz to the effect that a self-declared socialist could never defeat Donald Trump, and preferred the comfort of a return to the pre-Trump normal - well personified by the semi-senescent Biden - to the bold welfare-state initiatives Sanders proposes.

The defeat of Sanders presents a dilemma for the leading thinkers of the DSA - Bhaskar Sunkara, Vivek Chibber, Seth Ackerman - who have abandoned the old Harringtonian objective of ‘realigning’ the Democrats to the left in favour of supporting Democratic candidates as a temporary tactic on the way to an independent working class party. The fact, however, is that the major Democratic figures the DSA supports - Sanders and the ‘squad’, comprised of representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley - do not share the objectives of the DSA left; they are committed to realigning the party, and will throw their support behind Biden in the general election. Even if the DSA and other Sandernistas refuse to endorse Obama’s vice-president, it is highly unlikely that they will withhold support from ‘progressive’ elected officials who do.

Thus, far from implementing a strategy for forming an independent party, the DSA will probably remain in the position of following in the train of Democrat-loyal candidates, who will, in turn - perhaps with serious misgivings - back a racist-pandering, corporation-loyal political charlatan in November. Thus, contrary to Demarty, the Communist Party and many others will for the time being remain confirmed in their belief that Biden or someone like him is the best we can hope for. And, while revolutionary Marxists like myself would be foolish to assert that class anger can never take an electoral form, or manifest itself within one of the dominant parties - we can also conclude that the two-party system as a mechanism for containing class struggle, though under strain, remains intact in the 2020 electoral cycle. The extent to which the Sanders movement will survive the defeat of its inspirer remains to be seen.

Socialism later?

One reason why the high hopes of the left have been so abruptly dashed is that American democracy is far less democratic than it purports to be. Indeed, one of the ironies of history is that the polity that Alexis de Tocqueville and Abraham Lincoln celebrated as the world’s great experiment in popular governance, and that even Lenin viewed as “the most democratic of bourgeois republics”, emerged during the 20th century as perhaps the least answerable to its citizens of all the great capitalist states.

How democratic is a US Congress with an upper chamber in which the state of North Dakota, containing some 800,000 residents, is allotted the same number of senators - two - as California, with a population of over 37 million? And how responsive to the people’s will is an electoral college that replicates this Congressional imbalance, and retains a system in which the general presidential election winner in any state gets all of its delegates - with the result that, in 2000 and 2016, it handed the presidency to candidates (George W Bush and Donald Trump, respectively) who had lost the popular vote? And this is to say nothing of two major parties, which, without a programmatically-based membership active between primaries and elections, represent no more than clusters of elected officials responsible to no-one but themselves. In addition, there is a mounting Republican drive to limit the franchise through gerrymandering, depriving prisoners and ex-felons of the vote, reducing the number of polling sites, removing the names of people thought to have changed their addresses from voter rolls, and demanding formal identification at polling places. The elimination of these deeply undemocratic features of the constitutional-electoral system is a legitimate demand of any socialist programme.

Comrade Demarty, however, appears to go further than this. He writes that the US needs a third revolution, one that will transform it into a truly democratic republic. This assertion can be interpreted in one of two ways. At the height of capitalist triumphalism in the 80s and 90s, not a few leading leftwing academics and journalists eschewed the socialist label because it was unpopular, styling themselves instead ‘radical democrats’ and the like. One would hope that Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a socialist even though he is not, will help these timid souls to stop saying they are not socialists even though they are. But I assume that Demarty is not in this company, and is not therefore attempting to rebrand the socialist revolution as a democratic-republican one for purposes of salesmanship.

The second possible interpretation, then, is that he envisages America’s third democratic revolutionary act as a discrete event, preceding, and distinct from, a socialist transformation. Is Demarty, in other words, proposing a theory of stages - previously applied by Marxists only to countries of belated development - to the world’s most powerful capitalist state? This possibility deserves further consideration.

Thus far, the US constitution has provided a sturdy framework for capitalist rule. It has been amended when necessary (to abolish slavery, as after the Civil War) or ignored when convenient (as, for example, the 14th amendment - which reduced a given state’s number of seats in the House of Representatives in the proportion in which it denied any of its citizens the right to vote - was never enforced during the entire era of racial segregation in the south, when blacks were effectively barred from voting).

The constitution, and bourgeois parliamentary institutions in general, only come under threat when class contradictions sharpen to the point where even limited democratic freedoms become a threat to the fundamental prerogatives of the ruling class. Short of that, there is a general recognition that parliamentary forms are too great a source of legitimacy for the existing order to be abolished - even when politicians are elected, and legislation passed, that the bourgeoisie greatly dislikes. It is therefore highly unlikely in my view that even newly arisen authoritarian figures - Viktor Orbán, Andrzej Duda, Trump - will conduct a frontal assault on electoral democracy.

From the standpoint of subaltern classes, on the other hand, democratic demands only take precedence under a dictatorship or oligarchy, in which the people as a whole, or entire parts of the nation, are denied basic democratic rights or excluded from government (as were the black people who carried on the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s). For all its unwieldiness and impediments to democracy, the US constitution (in its post-Civil War form anyway) is not openly exclusionary. Calls for its revision or abolition will at best be secondary in any social upheaval. (As they were in the Democratic primary. Sanders’ rival on the party’s left, Elizabeth Warren, at one point called for the abolition of the electoral college, but this proposal was made only in passing, and not pitched on anything near the level of Medicare for all or tuition-free public university education). The age of bourgeois-democratic revolution is long gone.

None of which is to say that legal-juridical questions will play no part in the broad political struggles, and revolutionary upheavals, of the future - only that such questions will be intertwined with, and secondary to, the major challenges of economic organisation and class power that crises in advanced capitalist countries have always pushed to the front in short order. One could, for instance, imagine a confrontation sparked by a court ruling or legal technicality employed by the ruling class to thwart an overwhelming popular mandate. But the essence of the struggle would be the content of the mandate itself - which would surely be of a social-economic nature - rather than the legalities surrounding it. In other words, a major conflict involving legal-juridical questions in and of themselves is difficult to imagine in a country with a developed economy and a formally democratic constitution.

Comrade Demarty is an elegant and perceptive writer. He has rightly pointed to the possibility - and the nearer actuality - of fissures in the bourgeois fabric occurring in places not dreamt of in sectarian dogmas. But, if one of the lessons he aims to teach is the need to trade in socialist for democratic revolution, I will happily remain among the uninstructed.

Jim Creegan can be reached at egyptianarch@gmail.com.