Whose lives matter? The limitations of Bernie Sanders

  • February 7, 2016

People & Power

Our only hope for a radical internationalist movement lies in the self-organization of working-class people. It certainly will not come from Bernie Sanders.

As the next US presidential election creeps closer, a significant segment of the American left — including the Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternative, and the socialist publication Jacobin — has thrown its support behind the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. While perhaps predictable, these stances are symptoms of an American left that is both devoid of a practical strategy for radical change and ethically bankrupt with regard to the principles of solidarity.

The principles at stake are not fringe concerns. If anything, they are basic litmus tests of any individual’s commitment to socialism and human dignity. The fact that Sanders fails these tests raises an important question: Why is a large swathe of the left promoting a candidate who is neither anti-imperialist, nor anti-border, nor even socialist?

Reasons to remain skeptical

In terms of his actual policy proposals, Bernie Sanders is a milquetoast social democrat at best. He is not an anti-capitalist; he believes in the private ownership of the means of production and production for profit. In a socialist system, the means of production are owned and controlled by the working class. Sanders more-or-less explicitly rejects this vision, arguing instead for a US version of Scandinavian social democracy: a single-payer healthcare system, free higher education, a decent minimum wage, and Keynesian economic stimulus to support employment.

These policy issues are the basic positive proposals put forth by the Sanders campaign, and they have earned him the support of many US socialists. There are good reasons to remain extremely skeptical of Sanders’ candidacy, however.

First, Sanders is an imperialist whose foreign policy is more akin to that of Barack Obama than any anti-interventionist leftist. In his platform-defining speech, Sanders calls for a new “organization like NATO to confront the security threats of the 21st century.” In Congress, Sanders has been a vocal supporter of the appallingly wasteful F-35 program, opting to designate even more funding for the US military despite an ostensible commitment to cut defense spending.

Editorial correction: Murtaza Hussain has updated the original story cited in The Intercept, writing: “Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver has indicated the staffer responsible for the ejections has been removed from their position, and reiterated the decision to remove the students does not reflect campaign policy.”

Sanders is also a long-time supporter of Israel, even going so far as to approve of Israel’s unprovoked 2014 assault on Gaza, which killed over 1,600 Palestinian civilians. In October, the Sanders campaign ejected a group of activists from a campaign event for holding up a vague pro-Palestinian sign. If this were not enough, Sanders clearly states that he approves of and would continue Obama’s drone targeted assassination program, which has killed over 3,300 people in Pakistan alone since 2004.

Even beyond the question of imperialism, Sanders demonstrates an almost complete lack of internationalist principle. Sanders described open borders as “a Koch brothers proposal …which says essentially there is no United States,” contending that open borders would flood the country with immigrants who would wreck the job market and take ‘American’ jobs. This sort of rhetoric should be familiar to any leftist — it is exactly the same as that used by right-wing nativists to justify violence and discrimination against migrants.

The fact that Sanders buys into such nativist fantasies is particularly appalling. In doing so, he lends credence to a narrative that displaces working class anger from capitalism, which is actually responsible for poverty and unemployment, onto working people from other countries. In effect, Sanders implies that he would be more than happy to continue the disastrous immigration policies of the Obama administration, which has broken previous records by deporting over two million people.

A wider political shift

More than anything, Sanders’ success is symptomatic of an ongoing political shift in the United States. Popular support for “Third Way” neoliberal politics, as exemplified by the Clintons, is crumbling. The Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements have begun to reintroduce radical thought into the American political consciousness. In particular, young people are starting to recognize that capitalism is a deeply flawed system, and they are looking for alternatives.

Now is the time to articulate a coherent vision for radical change and organize in working-class communities so that we stand a chance of actualizing that vision. Organizing for Sanders, however, is not a realistic way to build a radical movement in the United States.

The arguments in support of the Sanders campaign remain remarkably unconvincing. In a recent Jacobin article, Nivedita Majumdar argues that the Sanders campaign can be used as a tool for organizing around the idea of socialism. She chides Bernie’s critics on the left for being “insular” and “apolitical,” seemingly more concerned with the social pressures of work within small activist groups than becoming politically relevant. However, as Lance Selfa points out, the strategy of organizing within the Democratic Party in hopes of building a larger movement has never been successful, despite repeated attempts by left reformists to that end.

Majumdar’s stance is based on an analysis of the American left that presumes an almost crippling weakness. She argues that revolutionary transformation is simply “not on the table,” which leads her to endorse Sanders despite his many flaws. The problem with this analysis is that it accepts defeat before the struggle has even begun. If the American left is so weak that we must be content with supporting any left-liberal candidate, how exactly do we plan to build support for the radical changes we actually need? We cannot build support for a socialist future by misleading the public about what socialism is. We cannot hope to win if we accept the premise that revolutionary change is impossible.

The American socialist left seems to be aware of many of Sanders’ limitations: his lack of genuine socialist politics, his imperialism, and his unjustifiable stances on immigration. The question, then, is why so many socialists choose to support his campaign anyway. If one’s stance on the means of production, NATO, the Israeli occupation, drone strikes and border controls are all negotiable, what positions are non-negotiable?

It is hard to believe that these shortcomings should be ignored simply because Sanders has social democratic convictions. By choosing to support Sanders, the reformist left suggests that it is acceptable to advocate for policies that seriously harm people of color, from undocumented migrants in the United States to innocent civilians in the Middle East.

A question of left strategy

As much as it poses an ethical dilemma, the Sanders campaign presents the American left with a question of strategy. Reformist participation in electoral politics is appealing because the route to power appears to be a question of running a successful election campaign. If Sanders can succeed, the argument goes, why not a real socialist party in the near future?

The problem with this line of thought is that the United States is constitutionally undemocratic — its political system was explicitly designed to thwart radical change. Through the Senate, representatives of just 11 percent of the nation’s population — concentrated in some of the country’s most rural, conservative states — can veto any national legislation. Any meaningful reforms would face immediate constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court, which is made up of lifetime legacy appointees whose politics are liberal at best and reactionary at worst.

Participation in US electoral politics is therefore not a realistic strategy to bring about radical social change. It is easy to believe that we can gradually transition to socialism by winning a series of elections. It is much harder to realize that this route will never deliver the change we desire, because that realization requires us to pursue strategies beyond the ballot box.

Rather than channeling popular anger into institutionalized politics, we need to articulate a vision for the radical reconstruction of the political and economic structures of society. We have to devote ourselves to the hard work of organizing in working-class communities, building power in the streets and in workplaces rather than the halls of Congress. More than anything, we have to recognize that the radical left is at its strongest as a grassroots movement and at its weakest when it tries to bargain with institutional powers.

We cannot succumb to an opportunistic streak that is more than willing to sacrifice vital principles for legal expediency and electoral fantasies. It is painful to see this tendency in today’s left, despite the myriad lessons offered by Syriza’s recent failures. A left that values minor economic gains over humanity is not worthy of the name — it is a left that has defeated itself before even beginning to struggle.

What we need now is a movement that is both rigorously internationalist and capable of victory. Our only hope for such a movement lies in the collective self-organization of working-class people. It certainly will not come from Bernie Sanders.

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Ben Reynolds

Ben Reynolds is a writer and activist based in New York. His commentary has appeared in CounterPunch and other forums.

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