Sanders’ Campaign & the Democratic Party

Against the Current, No. 187, March/April 2017

Jules Greenstein

THE FOUR ARTICLES featured in the January/February issue (ATC 186) under the heading “The Election and Beyond” were informative, particularly Kim Moody’s piece “Who Put Trump In The White House?” Strangely, however, only Chris Maisano’s article “Hope In Dark Times” gives the Bernie Sanders campaign more than passing mention. This convinces me that the socialist left does not really understand that campaign’s significance and the lessons to be drawn from it.

Bernie Sanders, an Independent senator, has called himself a democratic socialist and as late as 1979 was denouncing the two capitalist parties as dead ends for workers. He produced a documentary about his hero, E.V. Debs, entitled “Eugene V. Debs, Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary: 1855-1926” (Smithsonian Folkways, 1979) in which he quoted Debs:

“Every four years the Democratic and Republican parties come forward and tell the working people of this country all that they are going to do for them. How they are going to end unemployment, raise wages, lower prices and stop war.

“Debs didn’t believe a word of it. He believed that the only way that workers could protect their own interests was to have a political party of their own — a socialist party.”

Despite using the term “political revolution” in his campaign, Sanders’ “socialism” was hardly Debsian. When questioned, he took the opportunistic course of defining socialism as Social Security and the safety nets of the Scandinavian countries. Socialists no doubt could find a number of defects in Sanders’ positions on foreign policy and elsewhere.

But these are of minor significance compared to the remarkable results he achieved. Starting with close to zero name recognition and with no corporate dollars, the Sanders campaign gathered considerable working-class support. He defeated Clinton in 23 of the 50 states and tied her in two others.

He garnered more than 13 million votes, 43% of the total, and managed to win outright in the “battleground” states of Michigan and Wisconsin. He also exceeded 40% of the vote in five others (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri.)

Despite his many flaws, the Sanders campaign had a working-class, implicitly anti-capitalist flavor that garnered considerable support among those who might otherwise have voted for Trump, as many perhaps did.

In contrast, the Green Party campaign of Jill Stein fizzled. Granted, she was not a charismatic candidate like Sanders and was blocked by the media who refuse to take any but the two capitalist parties seriously. Still, her failure to get a significant fraction of the vote won by the libertarian, Gary Johnson, in an election between the two most unpopular major party candidates in history was both disheartening and informative. It indicated to me that, if there is a road to a working-class party in America, it will not develop out of middle-class, left liberal third parties like the Greens.

What’s the Alternative?

Since I was old enough to vote, in 1952, I have never voted for either of the two capitalist parties. In presidential elections, I always cast a protest vote for one of the parties that had “socialist” in its name.

I was a follower of Hal Draper whose seminal article, “Who’s going to be the lesser-evil in 1968?” (Independent Socialist Jan-Feb 1967) I found convincing. The two capitalist parties were dead ends for socialists. [Draper’s article can be found online at — ; ed.]

Draper had been a leading proponent of the “Labor Party” position within the Independent Socialist League, of which I was a member. As I understood it, this was the view that when a major capitalist crisis hits and workers became more militant, they could pressure the trade unions to organize an independent Labor Party.

This party would most likely follow the road of the British Labour Party or the social democratic parties of Europe. In it, independent socialists would have a voice, leading rank-and-file workers into ever more radical anti-capitalist solutions.

Since then, I have witnessed several capitalist crises and the decimation of the American trade unions. I still believed that somehow an independent party of labor could emerge. I voted for Jill Stein with the full knowledge that in New Jersey, a Clinton state, my vote would be irrelevant. Her candidacy echoed Bernie Sanders’ agenda in many items and was superior in others. Still, I had to cringe in embarrassment at her proposal to forgive college debt by “quantitative easing.”

I am sure that Sanders gave considerable thought to running in the primaries as a candidate of one of America’s capitalist parties (as I did before choosing to participate in the Sanders campaign). However, lacking a parliamentary system, the United States since its birth has been locked into a two-party system. When a major third party emerges, it comes out of one of the two, as the Republican Party emerged from the Whigs.

The way the crazy-quilt primary system has developed, it was possible for Trump to hijack the Republican Party and for Sanders, a transplanted Jew from Brooklyn who calls himself a socialist, to gather working-class support to an astonishing extent.

Socialists can run against the tide, hoping for the working class to be attracted to a third party like the Greens with their fine program, or accept the alternative: that it is more likely to develop from a rump campaign such as the one that Sanders led. I am now convinced that the latter is the better hope.

March-April 2017, ATC 187