By Dan La Botz
This post originally appeared in the DSA Weekly on March 2nd.
Sanders 2016 revived the progressive left and turned DSA into the largest socialist organization in America in seventy years. Flooded with young people angry at the Democratic Party, DSA became a radical, activist organization projecting the need for a total socialist transformation of America. Sanders 2020 will not have the same effect. Bernie will not appear to be much different than other progressive Democrats and his campaign threatens to lead DSA deep into the Democratic Party.
Sanders 2020 poses the question of political subordination to a capitalist party or political independence. And, though it may not seem so at first, it poses the historic question of reform and revolution. Yes, we may recruit thousands more, but to what kind of an organization will we be recruiting them? An adjunct of the Democratic Party or an independent socialist organization rooted in the social and labor movements?
Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign for the Democratic Party nomination had a tremendously positive effect on American politics in general and on the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) in particular. Disappointed by Barack Obama and disgusted by Hillary Clinton, millions rallied to Bernie’s progressive platform. Many others identified not only with Bernie’s program but also found his socialism attractive. Some had never voted, never supported a Democratic candidate before, other had voted or Obama and been burned. When Bernie lost the nomination, largely because of the Democratic Party’s unfair practices, thousands turned in anger from the Democratic Party to DSA.
We should remember that what has made DSA so exciting in 2016 and up until today has in large measure been that initial anger at Clinton and at the Democratic National Committee. The Bernie Bump folks, the ten or twenty thousand members who joined in 2016, were really angry. Anger at the Democrats gave the new DSA its edge, breaking with the organization’s long subservience to liberal Democrats.
Then, with Donald Trump’s inauguration, DSA grew by another twenty thousand members or so, flooded with people afraid of what the new racist, misogynist, authoritarian president might do. Fear was countered by the hope that DSA might be able to help stop Trump, and that led to support for progressive Democrats. DSA even ran its own candidates, mostly in the Democratic Party, but often now running as open socialists.
This is where we are now, in a moment of tension between immersion in the Democratic Party and the possibility of mass social movements and independent socialist campaigns. We are divided between reformist opportunities and revolutionary aspirations. Bernie 2020 raises the question of whether or not DSA will turn back to its position of subordination to the Democratic Party or go forward to build the radical social movements and eventually an independent, working class, socialist political party.
Bernie 2020 will not be like 2016.
What attracted people to Bernie in 2016 was that he had been a political independent. He appeared—as did Trump on the right—as a break with the corrupt and corporate-controlled Republican and Democratic parties. But Sanders is no longer—if he ever was—really an independent. He has spent the last two years largely campaigning for Democrats and preparing for a 2020 campaign in the Democratic Party. Sanders is today the leading progressive in the Democratic Party, not an independent. And, as we all know, he is not really a socialist. He is a New Deal liberal.
Socialism means the democratic socialization of the banks and corporations, of industry and agriculture, of the media and culture. Historically this idea has presumed the creation of a working class party, the destruction of the capitalist state, and the creation of a new more democratic government, the nationalization, municipalization, or the cooperitivization of the economy, the democratic elaboration of a national economic plan, and within that plan widespread community control and workers’ power in the workplace. This is not Bernie.
Bernie has often said that he looks back to Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” for his political model. In fact, FDR’s New Deal of the 1930s–and more important the economic expansion of World War II—established the social compact that saved capitalism. Then, updated in the 1960s by Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society,” it stabilized an increasingly crisis-ridden capitalism for another couple of decades until the Great Recession of 2008. The New Deal and Great Society, of course, were made possible by America’s global economic, political, and military dominance and hegemony by imperialism. The New Deal’s social Keynesianism morphed into military Keynesianism, which underlay much of American prosperity. That is the essential fact of the original New Deal.
There was also the all-important New Deal Coalition that saved the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party’s role in American society—as the lesser of two evils—is to periodically reform the political and economic system just enough so that it can incorporate and absorb those who begin to turn away from capitalism. When the Great Depression led to the left-led working class upheaval of the 1930s, FRD’s New Deal Coalition made concessions to labor that brought the new industrial unions, as well s the old craft unions, into the Democratic Party. And those movements died there.
FRD’s New Deal Coalition provided the model for successive generations of Democratic Party leaders. In the 1960s and 1970s the African American Civil Rights Movement threatened to move in an independent direction, but Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B . Johnson succeeded in passing reforms that kept black people in the Democratic Party and brought some of them into leading positions in government and the corporations. The radical Women’s Liberation movement of the 1970s similarly won significant reforms that were limited and compromised by subordination to the Democrats. The Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement also died in the Democratic Party.
The Great Recession of 2008 created new dissident and restive elements in our society—from Occupy Wall Street to #BlackLives Matter to #MeToo—and the question for the ruling elites became how to keep those elements from turning their social movements into new political forces, into a new political party of the left? This is not a conspiracy but it is the party’s functional role. The Democratic Party offers social movements a potential way to win immediate reforms, but at the cost of strengthening the system and also becoming part of it. And, it should be noted, the Democratic Party often fails to deliver the very reforms it promised, as happened with labor law reform, immigration reform, and environmental reform from Jimmy Carter, to Clinton, to Obama.
Today Sanders and the Democrats threaten to once again corral the rising radical opposition to the system. He has called for very progressive reforms–$15 minimum wage, health care for all, free public higher education—but, as he has repeated, he opposes the nationalization and socialization of the banks and corporations. He is about making capitalism more humane—that is his great attraction. But he is not about ending capitalism, which is our overriding necessity today if we want to prevent environmental catastrophe, end imperialism and foreign regime-change wars, and win justice for working people and the oppressed.
Sanders has become a supporter of DSA member Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s campaign for a “Green New Deal.” Like the historic New Deal, it appears to be predicated upon massive government intervention to reform the capitalist system in the face of catastrophic climate chnge. While we absolutely need to find away to stop global warming, the Green New Deal proposal suggests it can be done within the framework of capitalism. Contemporary capitalism, driven by profit and completely intertwined with the carbon energy systems of coal and oil, is highly unlikely to be able to undertake the total economic transformation that is necessary to prevent a climate catastrophe. And neither Sanders nor AOC propose such a total transformation. Politically, AOC’s Green New Deal movement will serve to capture and incorporate the independent environmental movement into a Democratic Party strategy.
DSA leaders have also linked the Bernie campaign to the West Virginia teachers’ strikes, as if a Democratic Party reform campaign had the same thrust and destination as a radical worker strike movement organized from below. Though Bernie gives his support to the unions and the teachers strikes, in the long run, these two phenomena are diametrically opposed. One is about workers’ power with the potential to destroy capitalism and the other about reforming and thereby strengthening the capitalist system, which cannot exist without labor exploitation. If the teachers’ strikes should through reform-minded union leaders—or perhaps through DSA members—become linked to Bernie, we would watch the movement be captured and neutralized by the Democratic Party. This would be a practically literal reenactment of part of FDR’s New Deal.
Moments such as these always create the mirage that we socialists could somehow significantly influence or capture the Democratic Party. The idea is more than a hundred years old, has been tried as many times without success. The Republican and Democratic parties—even in the age of Trump and Bernie—remain controlled by leading bankers and corporate executives, with strong ties to media moguls, to the military top brass, and with every other elite element of the society. Progressives—many of whom are actually neoliberals—may be able to win office, but they will be forced by the party’s structure and its corporate owners to govern for those who rule.
Those who would have us endorse Bernie have to explain how, after Bernie loses to someone like the liberal Sherrod Brown or Kamala Harris, they will be able to keep DSA members from either flowing into their campaigns for president or becoming disillusioned, embittered, and cynical following Bernie’s second defeat. Should we not be saying to our members now that a Bernie Sanders campaign very likely leads to a campaign by Kamala Harris or Sherrod Brown, and that that in turn leads DSA back to its 1980s strategy of trying to capture the Democrats?
Yes, if we throw ourselves into the Bernie 2020 campaign, we may be able to recruit more members, perhaps thousands. We have to ask ourselves, however, what sort of an organization will we be recruiting them to? The Bernie 2020 campaign will have a profound influence on DSA, emphasizing political work over building the social movements. We will find that we have created an organizational culture dominated by illusions of influencing or capturing the Democratic Party, rather than developing strategies for the destruction of the two-party system and the overthrow of capitalism. We will find that we have not only mobilized the organization for a campaign but have also transformed it for the future into a social democratic organization.
We in DSA should be building the rank-and-file labor movements, building the social movements against racism, sexism, and homophobia. We should also be running independent and socialist candidates at the local level and even for Congress. Many of our members may want to work for Bernie, let them. But as an organization, this time we should not. Supporting Bernie 2020 means jeopardizing our future as an organization angry at the Democratic Party, furious at the two-party system, and hating capitalism and imperialism. Let’s keep our hope, but let’s also keep our anger.
Dan La Botz is a member of the Central Brooklyn Branch of the New York City Chapter of DSA and involved in various working groups and national committees. He worked on the Bernie 2016 campaign while remaining registered as a Green Party voter.