Bernie and the Long Game: What Should the Left Make of Sanders?

by Sophia Burns on October 9, 2015


The mainstream’s left wing enables us in spite of itself.

As Bernie Sanders commands more support from Democratic primary voters, the US far left has debated the relative wisdom of supporting – materially or morally – his presidential campaign. Greatly simplified, the dispute fundamentally asks: will endorsing Sanders help us organize within a working class that still admires Steve Jobs over Karl Marx, or will the senator just “sheepdog” us straight into the Democratic Party?

So, across social media and socialist periodicals, the anti-Sanders crowd denounces his politics as insufficiently progressive. In particular, his consistent support for the occupation of Palestine and anti-immigrant protectionism. Meanwhile, his promoters defend his left-wing (or at least left-wing enough) bona fides. In the end, though, should we really center our analysis on the hypothetical policy decisions of a future President Sanders? Assuming that our main concern should be what policies Sanders would push were he to win artificially limits our analysis, and – most importantly – prevents us from recognizing what Sanders’ campaign really offers. Anticapitalism means long-game politics; our ambitions stretch far past the next election cycle. And whether Bernie Sanders wins or not – whether or not he is, authentically, “one of us” – we would be fools to ignore that his is the most concretely useful national campaign in decades.

When a mainstream politician uses language like “political revolution against the billionaire class,” does it matter that he ignores that terminology’s proper, technical Marxian sense? When people unconnected with our activist subcultures hear “socialism” used as anything other than Republican histrionics, who benefits – the Democrat that Sanders will likely end up endorsing, or the organizers who get red-baited out of nearly every political project of any practical use? Unless we choose to restrict our view of Sanders’ campaign’s repercussions to a simple “yes” or “no” on election day, none of us has the size or influence to turn up their nose at the potential offered by Sanders’ rehabilitation of open talk about class. Sanders (and those like him) make liberals of working-class centrists, and social democrats of working-class liberals.

So, should far-leftists start doorbelling for Bernie?

If we take seriously the opportunity Sanders is helping create, then no, we absolutely should not support him. We should not campaign for him, and we should not endorse him – not even “critically.”

Socialists ought to know better than to hang our revolutionary dreams on the “acceptable” candidate’s win in that perpetually-extra-crucial next election (let alone someone even acknowledged by his Marxist supporters as, at best, just shy of the Green Party). If we believed that, we would be Democrats. While Sanders’ exciting rhetoric and beautiful promises are already creating new left-liberals, it will not be his triumphs that make them communists. Sanders offers “political revolution,” but his approach and his party (to say nothing of his ideology) mean he will never deliver. And what happens when “Scandinavian-style socialism” fails his current enthusiasts? Some percentage of them will move left, but that will not be towards Sanders’ incrementalist admirers. Instead, they will turn towards the leftists who never lined up under Bernie’s banner, who put their energy, time, and money into direct action, into militant unionism and community self-defense, and into building political-economic-social infrastructure directly under oppressed and working-class communities’ control.

And, ultimately, I would personally rather see Sanders win than not; Democrats in office have a much harder time tricking people than Democrats in opposition. While by now the zeitgeist feels like ours, we should not forget how the antiwar movement collapsed after Obama took office, while recent mass movements (from Occupy to deportation resistance to Black Lives Matter) have all refused to become constituencies of the ruling Democratic Party. How many of the newly-politicized radicals of the last half decade would have ended up Democrats under a Republican government? But, in the end, the Sanders run’s biggest impact will not be the identity of the next president (whoever that turns out to be). No matter who wins, eighteen months from now, masses of Bernie diehards will feel not only disappointed, but betrayed – and if we maintain our focus on ground-level radicalism and avoid wasting time cheering for Sanders, then we can be there to recruit them.

Sanders is opening up space. But when he fails, whether we fill it will be up to us.

(Sophia Burns is an officer of the Communist Labor Party, a post-sectarian revolutionary group active in the US. Additionally, she organizes with RATPAC, the Revolutionary Alliance of Trans People Against Capitalism.)

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Judith L. Osterman October 9, 2015 at 8:14 pm

How does being for a somewhat left social democrat & not supporting him actively translate into real action? I believe that Bernie is all we have, at the moment. His campaign is what matters, because it gives us an opportunity to publicly comment on the issues that are important; both the ones on which we agree with him &, most significantly, the areas of profound difference of analysis. How corrupt is Bernie? Some Vermonters are not happy with his corporate relationships. His record has to be researched. Foreign policy is not only his Achilles heel but his Achilles foot & both legs. What part of his Zionism, e.g., is due to ignorance, & what part to blind tribalism? I suspect that Bernie is somewhat educable, if people are relentlessly persistent. He has asked for a movement to back up his policies, so don’t let’s refuse this opportunity. He probably has been living in a bubble since entering congress; we can try to bring him into the real world. All this while knowing that the President can’t do very much against the entrenched ruling elite; but voters have to be made aware of how the system works. His attempts to (if elected) establish a welfare state, while the European ones are being dismantled, don’t stand too great a chance of success, but the fact that he is serious about combatting-really, mitigating-global warming, is probably the best reason to support him (critically), particularly since the changes to the social & economic system that that would entail are, IMO, revolutionary by nature.


Illin_Spree October 9, 2015 at 9:55 pm

I guess I favor some critical “support” for Sanders insofar as I support the dreams and aspirations of the people who take the time to campaign for Sanders. For the most part, these people are concerned about the same issues and problems that concern us. Very very few of them support imperialism or American Empire.

So I want to make it clear that I’m not working “against” them (or their goals/aspirations), even if I disagree with the tactics of working inside the Democratic Party or thinking that electoral politics is a means to enact substantial changes. Electoral work is still useful as a propaganda and/or educational vehicle and in this respect the Sanders campaign is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Radicals should indeed attend Sanders events and express solidarity in the hope that these contacts will be helpful when the campaign is over and some of these Sanders supporters transform into leftist activists. It goes without saying that if Sanders supporters think Sanders is likely to win then they are probably young and politically naive….so they could indeed turn to independent leftist political work as their outlook matures.


John Drinkwater October 9, 2015 at 10:22 pm

So if Sanders wins and actually does good things, you’ll take back what you said?


Jonathan Nack October 10, 2015 at 12:36 am

This article makes the mistake of seeing elections, particularly primary elections, as presenting simply a binary choice. There is certainly a binary aspect to elections. We each have only one vote, which under our federal election laws can be cast for only one candidate.

Incidentally, this need not be true. Where I live, in Oakland, CA, as in a number of other Bay Area cities, voters have approved Rank Choice Voting, which allows each voter to rank their top three choices for each office in local elections.

Other aspects of elections clearly need not be approached as a binary choice. During the very long Presidential election campaign season, the main aspects of elections need not be seen as are the public discourse about the candidates and the campaigns of the candidates.

Certainly these aspects can also be approached as a binary choice, but they need not be. In fact, one can express support and even contribute to the campaigns of more than one candidate running for the nominees for more than one party.

In fact, the capitalists do just that. They do not limit themselves to a binary choice during campaigns. It is well known that they often contribute to more than one candidate, and even to Republican and Democratic party candidates. This is because they know how to game the system to maximize their influence. If a capitalist contributes to both the Republican and Democratic Party candidates in the General Election, they can not lose. They have bought access to both politicians.

The two party system in the U.S. is extremely restrictive and limiting by design – particularly so for the left. However, the system does provide some openings – ways to game the system to maximum advantage.

Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination provides one such opening for radical leftists. We can critically support Bernie, while also supporting candidates and parties to his left. I emphasize “critical” support, because without criticism, radical leftists have thrown away their principals and political positions. That is a good way to not only lose the moral and political high ground, but to play into dangerous allusions about candidates, such as Sanders.

In the case of Sanders’ campaign, there are a number of powerful reasons to be critically supportive. His attack on the power of the Billionaires and their corporations and his call for a massive grassroots movement against them; his proposal of Single Payer health care; for free public higher education; and his willingness to bear the label of democratic socialist, are among them. There are also many areas in which Bernie is deserving of criticism by radical and revolutionary leftists – practically his entire foreign policy comes to mind, among many other things.

Much of the radical left is coming around to seeing our central challenge in this Presidential election being winning over as many of Bernie’s supporters for the General Election as possible, in the likelihood that he fails to win the nomination of the Democrats. I argue that we will be in a better position to do that if we have expressed critical support for Sanders during the primaries.

There is also the possibility, no matter how slim, that Bernie could win the nomination and even the General Election.

I question those whom advocate taking an indifferent attitude to this year’s Democratic primary for President. Why should we reduce ourselves to standing on the sidelines while a genuine progressive reformer such as Sanders squares off against a neoliberal corporate capitalist such as Hillary Clinton? Why should we not take advantage of the openings that our electoral system provides us with?

If a player in a game which provides the opportunity to pursue multiple tactics simultaneously limits themselves to a binary choice, they have limited their chance to win, and may very well have lost the game before it has begun. It’s time the radical and revolutionary left learn to game our electoral system wherever we can. If the capitalists can do it for their benefit, why shouldn’t we?


Carl Daidson October 10, 2015 at 6:46 am

Think this through. What platform do we want Bernie to run on? Suppose Bernie had a ‘correct’ view on Israel/Palestine. What would it be? (No matter what you say, someone on the left will disagree, even among Palestinians.) More important, would your choice on a correct view be able to unite a progressive majority of voters? I doubt it. My own view would only unite a small but militant minority. So should our candidates purposely run on platforms designed to lose in the short run for the sake of ‘education’ for the long run? Perhaps, and in some cases, certainly. Or should we consider cherry-picking a few key issues that matter in a broader nexus but more immediately, say opposing Israel on the Iran deal, and set others, say one secular multinational state state for all in Israel/Palestine, aside for now? In this case, I think the latter is wiser.

I think Bernie is properly running on the platform of a popular from vs finance capital, war and the right. This can not only unite a majority of left-to-center workers, it can unite a majority of voters generally. And that, rather than his traditional social-democrat flavor of socialism, is why he draws the crowds that he does. And in their midst, there’s nothing stops us from doing educational work on however we see socialism.

But that’s not even the main point. Some claim our job is to ‘build a movement; out of this. ‘Building a movement’ is not quite right. Our job here is to build organizations, mainly comprised of insurgent workers on the ground, that can span from one campaign to the next, organizations like local PDA chapters. Or if you already have one, to double or triple its size in this campaign. If you don’t like PDA, build something similar to it of your own, but organize SOMETHING.

Movement-building and organization-building are connected, like breathing in and breathing out. But movements ebb and flow. When they flow, we cast the net out and flame the flames. When they ebb, we draw the net in, and reap the harvest, so that the next time the wave goes out, we have more forces than before. If we just ‘build a movement,’ we end up like the Rainbow after the Jackson runs. When the campaign ended, the ‘movements’ ebbed and evaporated, and nothing was consolidated.

This is not nit-picking or secondary. This is crucial, not only to ‘winning’ no matter who gets the most votes, but also to having the clout Bernie needs to fight on should he win. ‘Organization is the central task, revolutionary education is the key link.’ -CarlD


Daniel Liev October 11, 2015 at 9:48 am

This is something I’ve been wrestling with myself, as an active activist with limited time I can spend on any particular issue. The author is precisely correct that Sanders is not and will never be a harbinger of socialism… nor should he be. If he actually got elected president and tried implementing a truly radical platform he would be paralyzed by every section of the political establishment. So what would be the point?

The worker’s revolution is going to come from the people, not elected officials. However, he does have a very big presence at this moment, and it can be pragmatic to ride those coattails. For instance, Sanders has supported a $15 minimum wage, and I’m beginning to use that to leverage Sanders supporters to actively campaign for that. Working with Sanders volunteers a bit established good relations and will allow me the flexibility to advocate for a $15/hour wage as more than just a nice reform but as step toward building working class consciousness.

But come primary time in my state I’m likely not going to take time away from 15 Now or climate change activism or Black Lives Matter actions to try to convince people that a democratic socialist is the one who will lift their oppression under capitalism.


Carl Daidson October 11, 2015 at 10:55 am

The Fight for 15, Daniel, and other demand-focused campaigns, require a political instrument for taking power, no? Why not use the Sanders campaign as the organizing opportunity to begin working on such an instrument at the base, a task that will require severals rounds of elections.

Otherwise, you get trapped in what I call ‘street syndicalism.’ massing larger and more wide spread and disruptive ‘street heat’ for your demands. But the hidden subtext is that, to make the demands into law and policy, without the political instrument of our own, you are forced into a strategy where the ‘street heat’ splits off a bloc of liberals at the top to implement your demand as they see fit. You may get the $15 (or whatever), but no power relations have changed. Indeed, you will have raised a kind of street heat syndicalist consciousness with a working class dimension, but that is still not the revolutionary consciousness needed for our Modern Prince. We need something that will allows us to ‘break on through to the other side.’


Illin_Spree October 12, 2015 at 12:37 am

How do we build “a political instrument for taking power” inside the Democratic Party primary process?

See f.e. this piece about how the McGovern supporters and the “New Politics” approach in the 70s.


Carl Daidson October 12, 2015 at 9:24 am

You build PDA chapters at the grass roots. PDA is an independent PAC with no official ties to the DNC, although it works closely with the Congressional Progressive Caucus. It has its own platform, quite at odds with the DNC. You build it so it stretches the Dem tent to the ripping point, where a counter-attack will cause an implosion, and the Dems shatter and go the way of the Whigs. To keep things on an even keel in these battles and upheavals, PDA will need far-sighted socialists working within it as well. Then you take the organized force/faction that you have put together under than tent and build a new First Party, in coalition with other ‘outside’ forces. It’s the only approach in US history that has ever worked.


gary hicks November 29, 2015 at 12:25 pm

An excellent beginning read on these matters is Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men….about some of the politico ideological stuff that went into the making of the then revolutionary Republican party, 1850s.


gary hicks November 29, 2015 at 5:57 pm

The late 1840s to mid- 1880s is instructive for drawing out the rich admixture…and volatile!!…of the electoral upheavals, political violence up to and including civil war, and the many forms of culture through which all this gets expressed. This period of US history is sort of the overlay of how politics plays out in this country, and how it melds with international events. On this latter point, pay attention to the emergence of Japan and Germany, and also the unfolding of modern Chinese history….in these decades of the nineteenth century. Finally, read whatever you can that’s been written by Professor Gerald Horne of the University of Houston.


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