US Primaries: Bernie Sanders for President?

Printer-friendly versionSend to friendPDF versionMedia coverage of the US presidential primaries is largely concentrated on the Republican Party. Among others, the performance of Donald Trump and other obscurantists, as well as the weak showing of Jeb Bush, have attracted particular attention. In this, the Republican candidates show some of the current limitations of US imperialism: alongside the “moderate” Jeb Bush, most of the remaining candidates represent the right wing of the party close to the Tea Party. These stand for isolationism and a confrontational policy against China, like Trump, and/or for an uninhibited attack on social benefits domestically (Cruz, Di Rubio) and anti-Mexican racism (all candidates) or even the construction of the fence on the Mexican border, Trump. Among the Republican candidates, Trump has emerged as the major challenge to the initial favourite, Bush. It is not only with regard to financial donations and media presence that Trump’s positions now take centre stage in the Republican primary.

The media have shown less interest in the Democrats. This is partly because there are fewer candidates, only five against the Republicans’ 15, but more particularly because of the candidacy of Hillary Clinton who, as the former Secretary of State and the candidate beaten by Obama in 2008, is the favourite to win the primary. She is presented as not only a continuation of Obama’s policies but also as the best-placed Democrat to win against the Republicans who currently have a majority in both houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

A socialist as US president?

In Europe, especially on the Left, the candidacy of Bernie Sanders has attracted great attention. He has raised a number of left demands and describes himself as “a democratic socialist”.

Sanders began his political career in the state of Vermont, where he was for many years the mayor of Burlington and sat in the House of Representatives from 1991 to 2007. At that time, he stood as an independent candidate who, nonetheless, joined the Democrat fraction just as he is now standing in the primaries for the Democrats. Since 2007, he has been active as a Senator from Vermont, a state with 600,000 inhabitants best known for tourism, the production of maple syrup and the processing of marble.

As an independent “democratic socialist”, Sanders made his name as an opponent of the anti-terrorism law, “the Patriot Act” of the last Bush government as well as of the tax cuts for employers and highly paid that both Obama and the Republicans adopted. In addition, he was critical of the free trade agreement TTIP. As a result, Sanders is well liked, and can mobilise support within, the trade union movement led by the two main confederations, AFL-CIO and SEIU. Other demands, such as “take the country back from the billionaires” and “for a political revolution against the establishment” and calls for crushing the big banks and corporations have also added to his reputation.

Sanders’ platform

Bernie Sanders considers himself a socialist, albeit what he once described as a “vanilla socialist”, but, in fact, his platform is not socialist. Although he certainly stands on the left of the American political class, in truth he is nothing more than an old-style Roosevelt-style Democrat. If some of his positions do go further than FDR did, they are nonetheless firmly within the framework of bourgeois democracy and capitalist rule over society. There is no clarion call for a social revolution to be heard from Bernie Sanders.

All of his economic policy prescriptions are based on the Keynesianism that held sway in the middle of the last century and was adopted by European Social Democratic and Labour Parties and that were then taken up in the US until the 1970s. Fighting income and wealth inequality by means of progressive taxation on wealthy individuals and profitable multinational corporations and using this taxation to fund government-sponsored infrastructure projects for job creation, free public education to university level, an expanded and single-payer healthcare system, strengthening and expanding the Social Security trust fund and funding a living wage for workers are not, in themselves, anything new. These programmes, and the means for paying for them, just a reworking of what most of Europe and even the United States had until the neoliberal attacks on such programmes began in the 1980s.

Even the policy prescriptions on the so-called “social issues”, such as racial injustice, immigrants’ rights, women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, are just a rehash and expansion of the identity politics that have been used by the Democrats to win elections since the 60s. Once again, if Sanders takes these policies further than in the past, and sincerely supports them, they are still essentially Keynesianism.

However, it is in the area of foreign policy that the failings of Sanders’ policies can be most clearly seen.

Imperialism and Bernie Sanders

History has shown that neoliberalism is not the only way for capitalism to restore markets and profitability. In fact, neoliberalism is the easy way. War has always been the weapon of last resort to restore capitalism to growth and is always an available option. The production of arms and munitions to sell at a profit to governments for various wars, even if they are known as “police actions” and “humanitarian aid”, is always a way to boost the economy and profits in the short term and the destruction caused always opens up markets for rebuilding from the war itself. War and weaponry have always been empire’s most profitable export. Bernie Sanders, more or less, seems to support the concept of the American Empire.

Although he is on the left of American bourgeois politics, and has not supported all the empire’s wars, Sanders has nonetheless been prepared to support war in, for example, Kosovo and Afghanistan and gives tacit support to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. As a Senator, he has even brought war industries to Vermont. Now, as a candidate, he has pledged to support “American interests in the world”. Since the main American interest in the world is maintaining its empire, both militarily and economically, it is difficult to see how Sanders could resist the call to arms when that is presented as vital to American interests. In his support for the American bourgeoisie, he is reminiscent of the socialists of the Second International who supported “their” bourgeoisies at the outbreak of World War I.

That there is a “left” candidate in the Democrat primary is not altogether surprising. In a way this was also true of Obama in 2008 (although he was not so left with regard to social demands) or Howard Dean or, earlier, Jesse Jackson, who presented themselves as left populists. Apart from that, the trade unions that are close to the Democrats have repeatedly backed candidates in the primaries who supported their demands. In this respect, Sanders is initially taking over this role as a mouthpiece for the trade unions that have always supported the Democrats. After the primaries, little, if anything, is left of their demands. The workers’ votes that are mobilised by the trade unions, however, can be an important factor in the elections. This subordination to one of the two parties of US capital is one, if not the historically decisive, weakness of the US working class movement.

In contrast to some of the earlier “left” candidates, Sanders has, nonetheless, been able to mobilise tens of thousands to his electoral rallies. He has enthused masses of people with his demands for a minimum wage of $15 per hour, the abolition of student fees and loans, a massive increase in the taxation of the rich, the expansion of public services and of employment. While Hillary Clinton brought together 5000 to her New York rally, Sanders filled a sports stadium with 25,000 and, week by week, is closing the gap to the favourite. In the polls, Clinton’s advantage shrunk nationally from 35 to 15 percent and as a result the Clinton camp have had to take Sanders seriously and engage him in a real electoral struggle. All the same, we have to warn against illusions in Sanders. He will not be in a position to shift the balance of forces in the Democrats and at most will only pressurise Clinton to make compromises on social policy.

A progressive campaign?

Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the presidency has certainly had some positive and progressive results. To deny that, as some on the far left do, would be to ignore objective reality. Millions have been drawn into the political process for the first time, many of them young people and many of them from formerly marginalised social strata. His candidacy has shown that, especially on economic issues, there is an audience for a more left-wing view than has been espoused over the last 50 years. His self identification as a “socialist” has raised an interest in the word that has not been seen in almost a century. It is a shame that his platform can only be seen as “socialist” by the fevered right-wing hacks of Rupert Murdoch’s chain of propaganda businesses like Fox News and their supporters in the Republican Party.

Even leaving aside the weaknesses of his platform, Sanders’ decision to run as a Democrat makes it unprincipled for any anti-capitalist, let alone a socialist, to support his candidacy. The Democrats are one of the two main parties of the American bourgeoisie. This does not mean, however, that it would be wrong to support campaigns for some of the policies he promotes. On the contrary, revolutionaries should support movements for reform that can improve the position of workers and the oppressed within capitalism. Moreover, by arguing for mass mobilisations and direct action to achieve such aims, not only the living conditions but also the morale and organisational ability of the working class can be raised. In this way, the position of the working class can be advanced, despite, and probably against, the Democrats.

When tens of thousands can be mobilised for “left” demands and ideas for the first time since the Occupy movement in the USA, then this is something that the labour movement and the “radical” left has to take up. Of course, it has to be made clear, that the “independent” Sanders is not at all independent if he is standing as a representative of the capitalist Democrats. As the Obama administration has shown, this would change nothing in the character of US capitalism. Although a small supplementary health insurance has been introduced Obama has, at the same time, agreed with the Republicans the biggest austerity package and programme of cuts ever seen in US history. By 2025, $10 billion is to be cut annually from the public services. Anti-capitalists and socialists must therefore be very clear in their opposition to any support for the Democrats, including any support from the trade unions, and must fight for a “political revolution” in the party system in the USA.

Despite presenting themselves as more “humanitarian”, the US Democrats are not fundamentally different from the Republicans. Both are parties of the ruling class in the USA, openly bourgeois parties to which the trade unions are merely hangers on. As far as their social base and their relationship to the working class is concerned, they are fundamentally different from the European Social Democratic and Labour Parties that, despite their thoroughly bourgeois politics, emerged historically and socially from the working class and are still organically linked to it today. The Democrats, however, are not comparable to these “bourgeois workers’ parties” and therefore even the most critical support for left candidates in this party is categorically excluded for revolutionaries.

For a workers’ party in the USA

This is the key question for the US working class, the antiracist movement and the left. It will not be solved by so-called left candidates of the Democrats who will once again tie the trade unions to that party. What is needed is a clear political break with the two-party system. Even to win those policies that Sanders rightly proposes, such as the minimum wage, higher taxation to the rich, perhaps even the destruction of US monopolies or liberation from student fees and loans, will require an independent class politics and and a party of the class, not an “independent” candidate of a bourgeois party.

The two biggest “socialist” organisations in the USA, the Socialist Alternative and the International Socialist Organisation, have raised correct criticisms of Sanders. However, what they lack is a perspective for the building of a workers’ party. The ISO even goes so far as to take over the Green party, that is a petty bourgeois party which itself can only be an obstacle to the building of a workers’ party. The Socialist Alternative, with its independent candidates such as Swant in Seattle has been able to celebrate electoral successes at a local level however it lacks a revolutionary programme as well as any tactics with which to break the trade unions from the Democrats.

The minimum wage campaign, which is essentially maintained by the SEIU, is currently trying to persuade democratic local majorities in cities and states, little is left of the strike actions and demonstrations of 2014.

There are still over 16 million workers organised in the two confederations, AFL CIO and “Change to Win”. Instead of becoming the left wing of the apparatus, as does the ISO in particular, what is needed is an initiative for the building of a class struggle rank and file movement and for a workers’ party independent of all bourgeois forces. Then it would be possible to present an alternative to the Democratic party for the tens of thousands who are at the moment inspired by Sanders, an alternative that can take up and continue the struggle the justified demands of the workers, Blacks and Hispanic population even after the primaries. The USA does need a “political revolution” but in the form of a workers’ party which fights for social revolution and declares an uncompromising struggle against US imperialism.


Sanders’ campaign raises questions about socialism

A Marxist Response

The large rallies and recent gains in the polls following the debate for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed “socialist,” have many workers wondering what “socialism” is. Many more are confused because his ideas do not seem fundamentally different from those of others in the Democratic Party.

chart_1024Sanders added to the confusion during the debate on Oct. 13, 2015, when questioned about socialism. Instead of clearly defining the term, he attacked wealth inequality as “immoral and wrong,” a view even some capitalists espouse, and promised universal health care and paid family leave, benefits that are available in many countries with capitalist economic systems. He did not distinguish socialism as an entirely different structure for society.

Whatever Sanders means by “socialism,” one thing is clear from his popularity, workers in the U.S. are open to discussing the idea and want to know more about what it means. A lexicographer associated with the Merriam Webster dictionary tweeted about searches for the definition of socialism after the debate: “’Socialism’ spiking off the charts.”

Confusion about socialism stems not only from the decades of anti-socialist propaganda by the capitalist media, but also from the fluidity of its definition. Like any concept, the idea of socialism is not fixed or static; people use the word to mean many very different things. Even the co-author of the “Communist Manifesto,” Friedrich Engels, had to carefully distinguish the version of socialism he and Karl Marx described from earlier, “utopian” socialist experiments.

One reason why people with such varied and conflicting ideas all use the same word to describe their politics is that most of these ideas, parties and organizations had historic roots in the same socialist or social democratic parties of the 19th century, parties which were based on the ideas of Marx and Engels. (Workers World, April 26, 2012,

V.I. Lenin, the leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, was a member of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Over the last 150 years, disagreements over two main ideas led to the big differences between groups claiming the term socialist. Those main points of contention are over the issue of ownership of the means of production and the idea of revolution.

Ownership of the means of production

The “means of production” is a term used by Marx to mean all the infrastructure of modern society that produces and transports goods and services. It includes factories, trains, stores, farms and warehouses. In a capitalist society these are all owned by a relatively small number of people, even though millions of people worked to build them and work to make them useful. Even when workers own shares of stock directly or through their pensions, the control of these industries remains in the hands of the ruling class. The owners take huge profits while people who work there their whole lives barely survive.

Engels wrote in his book, “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific,” that prior socialist experiments failed because they were not based upon an understanding of the progression of society and its productive forces. The scientific socialism that Marx and Engels described would be based upon workers seizing the “socialized means of production,” from the capitalist class that currently owns them, the “1%,” (really one-tenth of one percent) and converting them into socialized production, based upon a planned economy, with the output of production put to the use of all of society rather than simply to produce profit for the few.

Sanders does not advocate taking the ownership of factories and corporations away from billionaires, ending the profit system that exploits workers, or creating a system where decisions about how and what to produce are made based upon human need rather than private profit. He describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” and seeks to keep the capitalist system in place, only expanding the social safety net, providing universal health insurance, lowering barriers to education and increasing taxes on corporations.

Several European capitalist countries provide more benefits for workers, better health care, more vacation time and higher wages, similar to what Sanders proposes. Those countries are often labeled “socialist” or “social democracies,” even though they still have predominantly capitalist systems, where corporations generate massive profits by exploiting workers.

Some ruling-class political scientists have said that Sanders is really more of a “social democrat” than a “democratic socialist,” terms that only further confuse many workers. (Washington Post, Oct. 17, 2015, What they mean is that a social democrat would, like Sanders, keep the capitalist system in place but seek to reform it. On the other hand, as the Washington Post goes on to say, “Democratic Socialists in the United States want a system where workers or the government own factories and other means of production.”

In the April 26, 2012, editorial referred to earlier, WW wrote, “When Workers World describes someone or some party as socialist without quotes, this means they are for taking the means of production — including land — out of the hands of the capitalist ruling class and having it owned publicly.” Some who describe themselves as democratic socialists also demand public ownership of the means of production, but what they usually mean is nationalized property, industries owned by a capitalist government, or worker-owned collectives within a capitalist society, not the planned, socialized production described by Engels, where everything is held collectively for the benefit of all.

This brings us squarely to the second key question that separates socialists like Workers World Party from democratic socialists or social democrats, an understanding of the state and the necessity for revolution.


When Bernie Sanders talks about a “political revolution,” he makes clear that he is not talking about the kind of revolution made by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917. Lenin thought it necessary to smash the capitalist state because the state itself is a tool of the capitalist class used for oppression and exploitation. Sanders rhetorically calls for a “political revolution,” asking for people to vote for him and others who promise various reforms to the capitalist system, but he opposes fundamental changes to the government. He praises “American [U.S.] democracy” even though it is founded on the genocide of Native Americans and slavery and continues to deny even basic democratic rights to women, people of color and immigrants.

Social democrats and democratic socialists, even those who advocate some form of collective ownership of the means of production, believe that sufficient changes to society can be made by working within the existing “democratic” process, that is, within what Marxists call bourgeois or capitalist democracy. History has proven this is false. Where socialist candidates have been elected who seek to make revolutionary change, world imperialism has used violent methods to overthrow them, such as with Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, or with the imperialist coup in 2002 against Hugo Chávez, when he was subsequently defended by a mass uprising. The tiny ruling class refuses to give up capitalism — and the huge profits it makes for the capitalists — without a violent response.

Even the modest promises of Bernie Sanders, as attractive as they are to workers, clash with the current corporate drive to increase profits while constantly decreasing the number of workers employed. Corporations worldwide are demanding “austerity” from the workers, which means expropriating even more of what workers produce. Any concessions to workers can only be won through struggle.

In its statement, “What is WWP,” the party writes, “Workers World Party is a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party dedicated to organizing and fighting for a socialist revolution in the United States and around the world.” (  That means that WWP recognizes that only through revolutionary struggle can the racist exploitation of the capitalist system be overthrown. Capitalism won’t allow systemic change to be simply voted into policy.

Article from Workers World |