Socialists and Sanders: A further response

Bernie Sanders with supporters.
Saturday, September 9, 2017

In his September 2 article “Responding on Sanders and reforming the Democrats”, Barry Sheppard fundamentally mischaracterises the position I outlined in “Socialists and Bernie Sanders”. I specifically did not argue in favour of the far left in the US trying to “reform” the Democratic Party. Rather, I advocated a tactical openness to supporting left-wing insurgent campaigns in Democratic primaries, following the mould of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 run.

I do not think, and did not suggest, that socialists should focus on transforming the internal machinery of the Democratic party. In his position as an independent senator caucusing with the Democrats in congress, I can understand why Bernie Sanders may have had a preference for, say, Keith Ellison as DNC chair over Tom Perez. But there is no reason why the organised left should expend any energy on such matters.

I absolutely agree with Sheppard that the Democratic establishment is one of the chief obstacles to achieving genuinely progressive political victories. Appealing to their better nature is a dead-end. They need to be smashed, and supplanted by a genuinely left-wing political organisation.

But there are multiple pathways to attaining this goal. Primary campaigns can notably be used to spread awareness of radical ideas and, in certain cases, inflict electoral defeats on establishment Democrats. Excluding the very possibility of participating in them is, in my opinion, a misguided perspective that would only handicap the American left.

Such an outlook would have precluded Sanders’ 2016 campaign, or have him run as a third-party candidate, where it is highly doubtful he would have performed any better than Jill Stein, or Ralph Nader in the early 2000s. The socialist movement would have been deprived of one of the most prominent platforms it has had in decades. It is true that primary elections are often rigged or manipulated – but this is also the case with general elections, and this in and of itself is not a reason for socialists to avoid engaging in them.

I would condition this perspective, however, with two qualifications. Firstly, electoral politics is a secondary matter, subordinate to the politics of the streets: organising protest movements, working in trade unions, and developing community networks are still the most important ways to oppose the neoliberal drive that has been turbo-charged by the Trump administration.

Secondly, the decision as to whether to run in a Democratic primary, or against the Democrats in a general election, is essentially a tactical one, dependent on conditions on the ground, particularly when it comes to local-level races. Socialists should be open to both strategies. Here I do, probably, differ from Sanders, who appears more reluctant to give overt backing to so-called “spoiler” candidates. Victories such as Kshama Sawant’s in Seattle council elections are an inspiration for socialists everywhere. But this question is not a matter of being more or less left-wing, as Sheppard infers. Rather, it flows from a level-headed analysis of the best interests of the socialist movement in the current political conjuncture.

I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t predict the future with the same degree of confidence as Sheppard does. And I would caution against seeing the mid-terms in 2018 as in any way indicative of how the 2020 presidential election will unfold. The 2014 mid-terms, after all, were not a particularly good augury of the 2016 race.

Some things, however, do seem likely. After four years of a Trump presidency, American society will be more polarised, with the far left (and, unfortunately, the far right) emboldened at the expense of the “centre”. Additionally, the chief argument used by Clinton’s backers against Sanders, the spurious notion of “electability”, has been demolished by her inability to defeat the most unpopular presidential candidate in US history. The DNC has already been tarnished in the eyes of many voters by its blatant pro-Clinton bias in 2016, and “tipping the scales” again would probably further discredit them (not that this means they won’t try).

A Sanders-style candidate in 2020 therefore has every chance of out-performing his near-win last year. And yet, as I insisted in my earlier article, this would only ever be a means to an end, rather than the end itself.

Finally, Sheppard goes to great lengths to differentiate the Sanders campaign from Corbyn. In doing so, he misrepresents some aspects of the 2015 Labour leadership poll. Voting was not restricted to members, but was open to “registered supporters” who could sign up to vote online by paying a token fee (£3), a level of commitment similar to that of a US primary voter. Moreover, candidates were not chosen by the constituency branches, but required the support of 15% of the Labour Party’s parliamentary caucus to be nominated, a threshold that made the nomination process rather less democratic than the “open slather” system of US primaries. Indeed, Corbyn only passed the barrier after being endorsed by MPs who did not actually support his candidacy.

At the same time, however, Sheppard states his general opposition to “working within ‘centre-left’ capitalist parties in the US, Europe and Australia”. Presumably this means he would also be opposed to working within UK Labour, which after two decades of Blairism had abandoned all but the pretence of being a socialist party, and demonstrably proven its ability to manage a capitalist economy in the interests of big business and the wealthy. Indeed, I was one of many activists who had unequivocally rejected the idea that socialist politics could be fruitfully practised inside the Labour Party.

But Corbyn’s victory, and the ensuing struggle to transform Labour into a mass socialist party, has debunked this position. It would be the height of sectarianism to be opposed to his leadership, or see it as futile. Fortunately, Green Left Weekly’s coverage of Corbyn has been overwhelmingly positive, with any criticism being expressed amid a general tone of support and solidarity.

Although there are undeniable differences between the political situations in the UK and the US, and although there are legitimate critiques to be made of some of his views (on foreign policy, most notably), I would argue that the same stance should be adopted towards the efforts of Sanders and his allies in the US.

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