Leafing through my August 1 copy of Green Left Weekly, I thought I spotted an egregious typo. Surely, Barry Sheppard’s dispatch from San Francisco, “Bernie Sanders’ Democratic Party strategy fatally flawed” in issue 1148 had had an apostrophe inserted in the headline where there should have been a colon.
Reading through the article, however, I soon realised that there was no typo. Rather than reporting on Sanders’ own withering criticism of the tepidly centrist strategy promoted by the Democratic “leadership” to thwart Trump’s right-wing agenda, Sheppard was taking issue with Sanders himself.
In trying to steer the Democratic Party towards a left-wing platform, Sanders is, in Sheppard’s own words, becoming part of the “con game” of neoliberalism. Rather than breaking with the Democrats and forming a new social-democratic party, his present strategy only serves to maintain the “death hold” of the US two-party system. Sanders’ belief in transforming the party apparatus into a fighting force for social change may be sincere, but his chosen tactic is a futile one that will only do damage to the left. With ironclad certainty, Sheppard claims: “Nothing like this could ever happen in the Democratic Party.”
Prior to 2015, I would have completely assented to the thrust of Sheppard’s argument. Throughout the Western world, the mainstream centre-left parties had proven themselves to be thoroughly bankrupt in their enthusiastic embrace of the post-1989 neoliberal consensus.
With the dominance of Blair/Clinton “third way” politics, any attempts by the far left to change these parties from within were a lost cause. If they ever had been agents for radical struggle, they no longer were. Marxists were better off striking an independent path, rather than feeding off the putrescent corpse of social democracy.
Events of the past two years, however, have made me less certain of this standpoint. In multi-party systems — such as Greece, Spain and France — new, radical formations have dismantled the monopoly that the old social-democratic parties exerted over the left-of-centre electorate. By contrast, the two-party systems of Britain and the US have largely remained intact. But an altogether different phenomenon has arisen.
Firstly, there was the meteoric ascension of Jeremy Corbyn — part of a small group of left-wing backbenchers who had managed to survive the purges of the Blair years — to the leadership of the British Labour Party in mid-2015, thanks to an unprecedented groundswell of popular support from the membership base.
Surviving two years of being undermined by the centrist faction of the party and their allies in the media, Corbyn presented a radical manifesto at this year’s general election, leading to a massive increase in the Labour vote, particularly among young people, and emphatically disproving the doomsayers’ predictions of electoral oblivion. With the Conservatives saddled with a mortally wounded party leader, Corbyn is now, in the eyes of many, a prime minister in waiting.
Secondly, of course, there was Sanders’ own presidential campaign. Competing in the Democratic primaries as an unabashed socialist, Sanders won 13 million votes and 46% of pledged delegates to the Democratic convention. His campaign rallies attracted thousands of people in cities across the country, and his calls for a “political revolution” reached millions of viewers tuned into the primary debates and other televised campaign events.
By refusing to accept corporate donations, he established a funding system based on mass, online contributions (famously averaging $27 a pop) that serves as a model for future campaigns. Perhaps most importantly, his presidential run has achieved something that was thought to be all but impossible for the last forty years: it has put socialism back on the political agenda.
Neither Sanders nor Corbyn are Marxists, and their vision of socialism is more akin to 1970s Scandinavian social-democracy than Bolshevik Russia. But both have spent decades honourably resisting the onslaught of neoliberalism, and the electoral platforms they have espoused are, I would claim, broadly similar to the policies that Marxists should put forward in the present political conjuncture.
In essence, they have developed what Trotsky would call a “transitional program”, making concrete demands that are capable of drawing popular support while being clearly distinguished from the bourgeois political consensus. If Corbyn’s program is to the left of Sanders’, this is chiefly because the political centre of gravity in Britain is markedly to the left of the US. A universal public health care system in the US is a radical demand that the present capitalist order is incapable of fulfilling. In Britain it is a reality, to which even Conservative MPs have to give lip service.
In light of these successes, the question of what to do going forward presents itself. In Britain, support for the Corbyn-led Labour Party is widespread among the far left, outside of its most sectarian fringes. Existing groups may choose to dissolve themselves into the Labour Party (an extreme move, and a potentially risky one if the project is defeated), or they may choose to remain organisationally independent while giving their backing to the Corbynite wing of the party. Neither option precludes making criticisms of the current Labour leadership when these are warranted, so long as these are presented within an overall context of solidarity and left unity.
The matter is, admittedly, trickier in the US, where, despite their humiliating defeat in November, the Clintonite right is desperately clinging onto control of the Democratic machinery. Sheppard is correct to point out that Labour and the Democrats are not exact cognates, and that the mass membership base of the former allows for a degree of internal democracy that is absent in the US party system.
But it is curious that he makes no mention of the one element of US electoral politics that does provide a site for grassroots movements to inflict defeats on entrenched party elites, one which was used by Sanders with spectacular results: the primary system. Ironically, it was British Labour’s adoption of a primary-style mechanism for choosing the party leader – actually a cynical ploy by the right to dilute trade union influence – that allowed Corbyn to win the contest. In US primaries, at all levels of the political system, there are doubtless many opportunities not just to run insurgent campaigns, but actually to win them.
Additionally, because the Democratic Party is not a membership-based organisation, there is no compulsion to disband independent groupings to intervene into its structures – unlike in Britain. Sanders himself has represented Vermont as an independent since 1991. The “Our Revolution” movement set up in the wake of his presidential candidacy is an autonomous organisation that supports left-wing candidates in Democratic primaries as one tactic among many, and emphasises the centrality of mass protest movements for enacting social change.
At present, therefore, I see it as far more preferable for the far left in the US to give support to such endeavours — while also continuing to organise in trade unions, community networks and social movements — rather than cast them as an innately “flawed” strategy doomed to failure. This, broadly speaking, has been the perspective of the Democratic Socialists of America (of which I am not a member), and they have grown more than threefold in the last two years, to 25,000 members. By contrast, the International Socialist Organization took a negative stance towards the Sanders campaign, based more on dubious purity tests than a clear-eyed judgement of the political situation, and they have not registered anywhere near the same levels of growth.
Contrary to what Sheppard suggests, there is nothing in the Marxist tradition to indicate that working within bigger centre-left parties (“entryism”) is to be avoided at all costs and in all situations. In specific contexts, it can be the most advantageous strategy to adopt. Right now, with the White House in the hands of a crazed billionaire, and a Democratic establishment discredited by its loss to said crazed billionaire, there is an opening for such a strategy to bear fruit.
Certainly, this is only a limited window of opportunity. There is no guarantee that the advances made by the Sanders and Corbyn movements can be continued indefinitely, nor that their achievements can be universally replicated. I struggle to see, for instance, a similar method working within the ALP at present. Above all, the left must be tactically flexible, and quick to recognise when old certitudes no longer pertain to reality.
But if the present opening is seized, then a vision that was once the stuff of outlandish fantasy – it’s January 2021, and Prime Minister Corbyn congratulates President Sanders on his inauguration – could become reality. The heads of two of the most important industrialised nations on the planet would be avowed socialists.
Of course, neither of them would be in command of socialist states. Even with a legislative majority they would have to contend with considerable opposition from their more centrist “allies”, as well as the intransigent hostility of state bureaucracies. At best, they could enact radical social-democratic reforms which may immeasurably improve the lives of millions of people, but leave untouched the more fundamental issue of state power (Lenin’s old “who controls whom”).
That question can only be resolved by a much deeper political struggle. Nonetheless, the fact that we can even pose such scenarios as being within the realm of possibility is a vivid indicator of the dramatic changes in the political landscape, on both sides of the Atlantic, that the last few years have witnessed.
[Danny Fairfax is an Australian socialist who was active in Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the Democratic primaries while living in New York.]