As it now seems that each passing Tuesday may bring further confirmation that Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic nominee for the 2020 presidential race, a particular era of left organizing is coming to a close. Bernie’s 2016 presidential run, which sparked new life in the US left, and his 2020 run, which was at least a distant glimmer on the horizon for much of the intervening years and which has dominated political life on the left for the last few months, were unlikely catalysts for a reinvigorated socialist movement.
But it certainly does not seem like there is another Bernie waiting in the wings. Bernie is an anomaly; his political trajectory is, of course in some sense, the product of the material conditions of the last few decades, but if this were the dominant reason for his unique political role we would expect to see more people like him. There are high-profile politicians with similar politics, but none who have any real shot at becoming president for the foreseeable future. The door to the highest office of the foremost imperial power seems as though it is about to close indefinitely for the left, and the left ought to accept that it is closed.
What are we to learn from what I still hope is a premature retrospective of the Sanders movement? First, that there is an immense appetite amongst the US working class for social democratic reforms and socialist ideas. The working people of this country are tired of an unaffordable, exhausting, and ineffective medical system; of endless imperial adventures abroad and a xenophobic and white-supremacist immigration system at home; of crashing on towards environmental collapse at an ever more blistering pace. Millions of people voted for advances that the entire ideological range of the mainstream media has decried as impossible for decades. The rejection of neoliberalism was clear; it remains as ever the task of socialists to develop this into a full-throated rejection of capitalism.
Second, that the Democratic party will not allow us to move even an inch towards the society we desperately need from within its ranks. Many socialists who adamantly reject the idea of realigning the Democratic party are still hopeful that Bernie’s insurgent campaign can run within it and hold off the party apparatus for long enough to get over the finish line; increasingly it appears that this, unfortunately, may not be the case. While it does all of the left a disservice to dismiss those not voting for Bernie as unwitting dupes of the Democratic party’s machinery, especially given his pretty abysmal performance with southern Black voters in particular, it is abundantly clear that the party apparatchiks have done everything plausibly deniable to blunt Sanders’ momentum. It is incumbent on us as socialists to provide an alternative vision, not just of a party that would support someone like Sanders, but of a party that could decide to run someone like Sanders, rather than waiting around for a uniquely capable idealist with no skeletons in his closet to make a bid for president.
This is an aspect of the Democratic party that is so ubiquitous in the US that it often becomes invisible: there are parties that you can actually join, the Democratic party just is not one of them. You are not a “Democrat” no matter how fervently you identify as one; you can vote in their primaries if you are registered as one, but you cannot, for instance, vote on the party’s platform, or choose who should run the party. You can do both of these things in the UK’s Labour party which, for all its faults, is at least a membership party. Like much of the US’ political and economic system, our parties seem totally absurd when compared with those of most other countries. When stacked up against a body that you, a worker with a day job who is not a party functionary, can influence with your voice, the prospect of affecting meaningful change from within the Democratic party basically vanishes.
One of Red Star’s points of unity and a guiding light in our analysis and practical work is the need for a workers’ party in the United States. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now openly recognizes that “in any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party”. We agree, and likewise have no interest in working in the same party as Joe Biden. The working class of the US has long been denied a seat at the table, and this has largely happened through denying it a political body of its own. This must change; we do not think this task will be easy, but it is the only viable path forward. As we say in our points of unity:
Workers’ parties have always been the vessels by which the working class has successfully taken power. We view that not as an accident of history, but as a testament to the strength of a unified working class.
We can’t waste any more time fighting the ruling class on the baseline question of whether we even get to express our political will as a class. The cross-class coalition of the Democratic party has shown that it is cross-class in appearance only, and that the hopes of the many will always be subordinated to the greed and avarice of the few.
The third, but hopefully not final, thing that socialists can learn from the Sanders campaign is the need for a way to discipline our representatives in government. We saw this clearly with Bernie: his promise to halt all deportations was a relatively major tenet of his campaign, which won him support from immigration activists in particular. In late February, he unceremoniously reversed it through his campaign manager at a forum. Those of us who were angered by this had little we could do; withholding donations or time spent volunteering seemed unlikely to be felt by the campaign, certainly not in a way that directly connected it to the issue at hand. I scarcely need to recall other cases in which “progressive” and generally left-leaning politicians have sold out their supporters—it is one of the US left’s most ubiquitous phenomena. By running candidates in a party of the working class, in which the working class can democratically decide the platform on which the candidate will run, we can be much more assured that our nominal representative will actually exercise our collective will.
Let’s be done with it! We can’t afford to wait any longer. Let’s be done with the Democrats and their billionaire donors, their incessant chiding that better things aren’t possible, their capitulation to the nascent fascist threat, their incestuous networks of consultants and lobbyists and yes-men whose only goal is to not rock the boat so that they can keep their jobs indefinitely. We deserve so much better, and it is so very possible.
The precise shape of such a party, the exact route by which we build it, the exact timeline on which we do so, etc., are all immense questions that it would be silly to try to answer in a blog post. For now, we want to convince DSA members of the necessity of such a party and to spark discussion and education on the topic. (And if you’re not in DSA, consider joining - Sanders or no, we need a powerful mass socialist organization.) Red Star has a zine further outlining what we mean by a workers’ party, and we’d love if you read it and shared it with your comrades. And subscribe to our newsletter if you liked this post and want to keep up with our goings-on. We promise to never shut up about the need for a workers’ party, or about anything else.