Gordon Barnes

Some months ago, I was at a bar in New York with an acquaintance of mine. While smoking with him outside, he gestured to one of his friends (a man I had never met before) and said something to the effect of, “Hey, Norman, you should chat with Gordon, he is a communist too!” In that brief moment before Norman and I began talking, I was imbued with this sense of giddy anticipation that I imagine most leftists feel when meeting someone cut from a similar cloth. What would Norman be? I wondered. Did Marxism-Lenisism, Maoism, Stalinsm, Trotskyism, or any variety of hard-left politics influence him? As Norman approached, he said— “So Bernie Sanders, right?!” He stated it with such exuberance, and with the implicit assumption that I, as a “communist,” would of course support Sanders. Almost instinctively, I blurted out, “Fuck that imperialist pig, he is a Democrat and a capitalist, ain’t no way I am supporting him,” or a phrase which at least encapsulated that sentiment. Over the course of the evening Norman, who identified politically as an anarchist, despite then working for a Democratic Party operation in Connecticut, explained the support of Sanders as being the lesser of two evils.

Sanders’ Record

Now that the race for the US presidency heats up and the Republican Party is in the full throes of its rather magnificent political theater, demagoguery, and its otherwise ridiculously backwards politics, it is quite clear that Sanders is the lesser of two evils. He is also preferable to Hillary Clinton and any of the mainstream bourgeoisie candidates. But being the lesser of two evils does not make one “progressive,” “radical,” or “socialist,” the last label is, of course, a favorite of Sanders and his supporters (democratic-socialist more specifically). Sanders remains, as I said to Norman, an imperialist and a capitalist. It is disheartening to see how many leftists – in organized groups and parties as well as individually – fawn over this man, gushing now that a self-avowed socialist has a somewhat realistic shot at the US presidency. It is a sign of “progress” that a “socialist” can feasibly win the presidency of the United States in this day and age, just as it was “socially progressive” that a black man was elected president in 2008. But like Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders’ identity is not what is going to disrupt or change the status quo. If we recall, many on the Left had similar notions about Obama’s election being some sort of panacea for American societal ills.

Obviously it wasn’t the case then, and it isn’t the case now, even if Sanders is more “progressive” than Obama is.

For all intents and purposes, Sanders is a Democrat. He endorsed both of Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012, and he caucuses with the Democrats and is a part of their committees in congress. His primary campaign advisor, Ted Devine, served Democratic presidential nominees Al Gore and John Kerry. Rest assured, Sanders is a Democrat through and through. He is in no shape or form a socialist, at least not one that categorically disavows capitalism. He is what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels termed a “bourgeoisie socialist.” Simply put, on the domestic front, he wants to attack the so-called “one percent” in an effort to raise the most people into the level of the bourgeoisie, or at least into a class position which easily maintains petty-bourgeoisie consciousness. This is, of course, untenable and impossible under capitalism.

Furthermore, Sanders is as bellicose an imperialist as they come. Aside from abstaining in the 1991 Gulf War vote, Sanders has voted in the affirmative for nearly every military action overseas during his tenure as a senator. Highlights include his endorsing the US-led intervention in Somalia in 1991 and the NATO bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia in 1999, voting for open-ended Authorization for the Use of Military Force, various votes for military appropriations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his unwavering support of Obama’s drone warfare in Yemen, Pakistan, and Libya. Granted, he doesn’t want “boots on the ground,” but rest assured that if Sanders becomes Commander-in-Chief, the belligerent international policies of the United States would merely continue unabated.

Sanders is also quite amenable to the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee and the right-wing Likud government of Israel, offering staunch support to Israel’s murderous assault on the Palestinian population. He mobilizes the specter of “Islamic terrorism,” whilst simultaneously supporting and encouraging Saudi Arabia (simply a different rendition of Islamic terrorism if we consider Alain Badiou) to become more active alongside the US war efforts in the Middle East. He supported the PATRIOT Act extension in 2006 and voted for legislation making fourteen provisions of the act permanent, and sponsored so-called “roving wiretaps” conducted by the FBI. The list goes on and on. Sanders’ voting record really is a litany of grotesque positions and measures of suppression and coercion, both “at home” and abroad. And his politics are reflective of this, to the point that him being the sort of messianic figure certain groups and individuals have made him out to be is nothing short of myopic.

The US Left and Sanders

When Sanders officially announced his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in May 2015, he stated, “We need a political revolution in this country involving millions of people who are prepared to stand up and say, ‘enough is enough,’ and I want to help lead that effort.” Sure, this country needs a political revolution. But a political revolution is not sufficient to supplant dominant social relations endemic to the capitalist economy. This country, as most others do, needs a social revolution, which would also necessitate the former. Sanders has no intention of altering social reality beyond some trite “tax the rich” schemes. If we recall, Donald Trump recently advocated a similar sort of “progressive” taxation. Bernie Sanders’ sole claim to any sort of radical or “socialist” politics is nothing of the sort. He is simply a Left-liberal, a social-democrat, one who wants to remedy a socio-economic system but has no viable solution to end oppression and social marginalization.

With some tapping into the obfuscating rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street, Sanders has been billed as the champion of middle-class America, and even at times as an advocate of the working-class. These are spurious claims; yes he is opposed to the superordinate elite, but these people are simply the top of the pyramid. They are a symptom, not the disease. The disease is capitalism; indeed, the disease is the pyramid. Sanders is not able, nor is he willing, to topple the pyramid. He just wants to make sure those in the upper echelons pay their rightful share. This, of course, will not happen. For one, the US President’s primary responsibility is that of Commander-in-Chief, or in other words, leading US military operations across the globe. The president’s power is attenuated domestically, with power being held in Congresses (both federal and at the state level). So for all that the president actually is and actually does, the US Left unfortunately has taken up his domestic challenge to corporate dynamism as a cause célèbre.

Occupy Wall Street was one of the first “radical” organizations to endorse Sanders’ campaign, which along with other organizations called for a political subordination to his “progressive” campaign. Even an editorial in the Jacobin, a well-regarded socialist journal went so far as to critically support Sanders, while “being aware of [the campaigns] limits.” And other articles in the same publication are along similar lines, the most radical of which lament that Sanders is running as a Democrat, which is very lukewarm criticism indeed. The Communist Party USA, long time supporters of Left Democrats, claimed that Sanders gave socialist politics “respectability” and legitimacy. As if the precepts of revolutionary social change rest on the respectable and legitimate nature of the politics in question.

Socialist Alternative and the International Socialist Organization, the two largest left-wing parties in the United States, opted to endorse Sanders. The former is the same party of Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant who capitulated to the Democratic Party in no short time, and openly endorsed Sanders as a candidate for president, even prior to his official announcement. Lamenting that he was running as a Democrat once the formal bid was made clear, SA posited that Sanders should run as an independent if he loses to Hillary Clinton. The ISO took a slightly different line, arguing that Sanders should have returned to Vermont to challenge the incumbent Democrat (with Sanders operating as an independent) in order to build a broad-based third party option to the Republicans and Democrats.

That the two largest “socialist” organizations in the country capitulated on the basic Marxian principle (they do claim to be Marxists after all) of abjuring class collaboration and tailed after Sanders is nauseating and uncontainable. Their proposed measures of “just having him run as an independent” are pure fantasy. If Sanders loses, he will deliver his voters to Clinton, or whoever the Democratic nominee will be. The lack of critical insight into who and what Sanders represents (liberal elites and liberal “ameliorated” forms of capitalist enterprise to be clear), and what he politically stands for is detrimental to the Left in this country. It is precisely these sorts of opportunistic politics that lead to resounding political defeats, massacres, and at times, even the wholesale liquidation of revolutionary minded folks across the globe.

I am specifically referencing China in 1927, Spain in 1936, Germany in 1939, Indonesia in 1965, and Chile in 1973. Now, let it be clear, at this current historical juncture, the Left’s support of Sanders won’t lead to the murder of communists by the government or reactionary militias, nor will it lead to fascism. These politics, however, are of the same genealogy, and are so devoid of any strategic and tactical acumen that if the social balances were any different in this country, such could very well be the reality. The fulsome praise of Sanders by certain sectors of the Left impedes any real chance for substantive social reorganization. And while not necessarily dangerous at this point in time, such politics will invariably prove detrimental to radical social gains in the future.

There are left-wing organizations that have rightfully attempted to demonstrate the fallacious arguments and deceptive politics of Sanders, the Internationalist Group for one, as well as a few other Trotskyist organizations and anarchist groups. The most visible critical engagement with Sanders’ campaign, however, has come from the Black Lives Matter Movement.

BLM and Sanders

On 8 August, three activists from the Seattle branch of Black Lives Matter made a heroic intervention at a Bernie Sanders event celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Social Security and Medicare. Incidentally, the SA propagandized the event as a great meeting amongst socialists. Sawant was present as well and she spoke before Sanders. Two of the activists, Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford, took to the stage just as Sanders declared Seattle “the most progressive city in America.” After a brief scuffle, some yelling, and Sanders informing Johnson that he would not engage with her “if that [was her] attitude,” the BLM activists were allotted four and a half minutes to speak, a gesture in remembrance of the four and a half hours Michael Brown’s corpse was left in the street after Darren Wilson murdered him (Brown died on 9 August). Johnson began her brief speech by contradicting Sanders’ portrayal of Seattle as a bastion of progressive forces, citing the genocide of indigenous peoples and the recent construction of a new prison. She also went on to discuss the (not so unsurprising) instances of police abuses, lack of social parity in the educational sphere, and the ongoing processes of gentrification. Johnson went on further to note that since Sanders was claiming to be a “grassroots” candidate (an apt description of his self-styled social-democratic politics), he should be in tune with the largest grassroots movement in the United States today, Black Lives Matter. During this portion of her speech, jeering and booing from the crowd intensified, particularly when she called for a moment of silence in remembrance of Brown. The event ended soon thereafter.

Sanders released a statement citing himself as the only candidate willing to “fight hard” against racism and for criminal justice reform. No statement could really be more nebulous. BLM activists also interrupted Sanders earlier in July at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, Arizona. These political engagements by BLM activists are the only direct criticism that Sanders has received from the broad US Left. While the politics of BLM have many internal issues and flaws, as they too (or at least sections of the movement) have openly capitulated to more “civil” engagement with the powers that be, namely the Democratic Party, the aforementioned engagements bring to the fore yet another problem with Sanders. He does not see an inherent problem with the racialized structure of capitalism. Really, the only concession given to BLM in the aftermath of these heroic interventions was that Sanders hired a Black woman as part of his “outreach” team. Simply put, it is an attempted method to stymie any dissent on the race question, and get Black folks, particularly young Blacks, in lockstep with his campaign.

Johnson and Willaford’s intervention, as well as others, were good in the sense that they publicly demonstrated the open hostility towards BLM by liberals and purported leftists and socialists. The intervention(s), however, are problematic in another light. While the activists chastised Sanders, as they rightfully should have, there remained the inkling that he should, if he wants to be truly progressive, engage with BLM. This is a dangerous tactic, and while not necessarily in the vein of class collaboration (BLM isn’t a class-based organization, though it is increasingly petty-bourgeoisie), it is one that could potentially lead to the subservience of BLM to elements within, or associated with, the Democratic Party. Really, the only viable option for dealing with the phenomenon of Bernie Sanders as a socialist candidate is complete divestment and unrelenting criticism. He offers no hope to BLM to end the spate of police killings, as this is a social issue and will not be resolved with some tepid “political revolution.” The precarious existence for large portions of Afro-Americans and other marginalized groups for that matter will not be ameliorated by ticking a box for Sanders come 8 November, 2016.

Against Sanders, for What?

Eugene V. Debs, he is not. Though I have seen some compare Sanders to Debs, what an assault on the character and legacy of the latter. Sanders wants to moonlight as a socialist, and that is fine so long as organizations on the Left pay him no mind and offer him no support (critical support is an inordinate amount of political backing for a capitalist war hawk). Much of the incipient desire to support Sanders amongst elements on the Left in this country is that the notional value of liberal democracy still holds sway. This needs to be shed immediately. Republican democracy is simply the dictatorship of capital, and being so consumed with and subsumed into it makes it exceedingly difficult to dismantle it.

How then are we to bring about a more egalitarian, just, and less oppressive world then, if not through voting for the lesser evils such as Sanders and whatever dregs come to the fore in his wake? If bourgeoisie democracy is a dead end (and it is), what way forward? Really, the only sound answer is to mobilize the oppressed to directly confront the extant power structures in this country. There needs to be more Baltimores, more port shutdowns, and teacher and transit worker strikes. The working class, in conjunction with sympathetic sectors of the middle-class as well as lumpenized people, are the only group(s) that can bring about any modicum of socialism. Through these class struggles, the attendant and interwoven struggles around race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, and etcetera will be waged. It is capitalism that allows the division of labor to exist on such arbitrary terms, and offers no solution to the problems of marginalization, cultural ostracization, and social segmentation except for some piecemeal reforms pushed by people like Bernie Sanders.

Much of the US Left is correct in calling for an alternative mass party to challenge the Republican and Democratic stranglehold on politics in the country. That confrontation, however, cannot be led by social-democrats and bourgeoisie socialists. It must be led by the rank and file. Its leadership must be its cadre. Moreover, the challenge to the two party monopoly in this country isn’t sufficiently waged at the ballot box. This is something ephemeral, and really not all that important to the material reality of the world we inhabit. What is germane is the amount of social power we (I use “we” as a broad based grouping of oppressed peoples and those elements of more privileged layers that support them) have at our disposal to force the hands of those in power. Only when the collective power of the working poor and oppressed of this country is wielded in such a way as to be precise, uncompromising, unequivocal, and direct, will there be chances of comprehensive social and economic transformation, and the inherent cultural transmutation which would likely follow. Sanders cannot lead anything transformative beyond higher taxes on the super-elite. This is not a social change, this is a placating tool implemented to prevent what is necessary – expropriation, redistribution, and a wholesale reorganization of our collective productive capacities for need rather than profit. It is not enough to attack neoliberal forms of socio-economic or political organization as Sanders alludes “we” must do in order to have a better country or world. Neoliberalism is the symptom, capitalism is the disease, and we need to excise the disease from our collective body and mind without the help of those that parasitically benefit from its very existence.