Mass enthusiasm and interest in the Bernie Sanders campaign has swept the entire planet. As his viability as an electable candidate gathered momentum, a chain reaction of support was unleashed throughout the country.
In particular, Sanders’ 20-point victory in New Hampshire marked an influx in the rise of sincere illusions and enthusiasm for his candidacy, transforming him from scrappy underdog to potential contender. However, we are only at the beginning of the beginning of a protracted process that will unfold over many electoral cycles. As with all complex and contradictory social phenomena, a sense of proportion is needed when it comes to American politics.
As we predicted many years ago, the political pendulum, which had swung so far to the right, is beginning to swing dramatically in the opposite direction. Years of crisis and instability have inexorably had an effect on consciousness. Sanders’ insurgent candidacy—which wasn’t given an ice cube’s chance in hell just a few months ago—is clear evidence of this. Tens of thousands have turned out at mass rallies to hear his message of “political revolution against the billionaire class.” He has put socialism in the headlines in an unprecedented way, reflecting the deep-seated discontent that has been slowly but surely percolating beneath the surface.
Following in the footsteps of Wisconsin, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter, Sanders has given conscious political expression to the formerly unconscious process of radicalization taking place in US society. A response to decades of crisis, austerity, cuts, attacks, and sellouts by the status quo politicians, Sanders expresses essentially the same fundamental process as the rise of Podemos in Spain and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. However, similar is not the same, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to understanding or intervening in political processes. The fact that the discontent is being channelled at this stage through the ruling bourgeois party makes things far more complicated.
For decades, the two-party system hung like an albatross on the neck of US workers. Now, with quintessential American energy, the old norms and expectations have been tossed out the window. Trump’s domination on the Republican side and Sanders’ close finish in Iowa and win in New Hampshire set the stage for a showdown on Super Tuesday. Clinton and Trump, each with seven wins that day, feel increasingly confident and have begun to aim their political fire on one another. Although Sanders won convincingly in Vermont, Minnesota, Colorado, and Oklahoma, he narrowly lost the New England state of Massachusetts and has fallen behind Clinton in pledged delegates. Never mind the spectacle of Bill Clinton personally and illegally haranguing and blocking voters at the Massachusetts polls—a win is a win. With many Southern states up for grabs early in the nomination contest, Clinton’s edge among black and Latino voters has given her an early boost. But the nomination contest is not over yet, and Sanders has vowed to soldier on, despite facing a hostile party machine and diminished chance of pulling off the political upset of the century.
Republican Party in crisis
At the same time, without a clear lead in the form of a mass socialist labor party, millions of workers are disoriented and have fallen for the right-populist demagogy of Donald Trump. Mass audiences have welcomed him to cities across the country. His persistent appeal has confused many, but has a clear explanation. Despite his off-the-wall and reactionary sound bites, Trump is not a traditional conservative. He is not an evangelical fundamentalist Christian like Ted Cruz, or a Cuban-American gusano like Marco Rubio. At heart, he is a mediocre trust-fund-baby businessman, reality TV star, and opportunist par excellence. A former Democrat who opted to run as a Republican out of convenience, he was at one time pro-choice and a supporter of socialized health care. Despite his attacks on immigrants and China, he has hired plenty of immigrants, and manufactures clothing in China. And although he initially gave an ambiguous answer when asked whether or not he disavowed the endorsement of Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, he is hardly a fascist.
The secret to his success is his brash, take-no-prisoners confidence, which plays on the fears and frustrations of ordinary Americans who are dissatisfied with both the party in power and the traditional wing of the Republicans. Given the crisis of capitalism and of US capitalism in particular, his promise to “make America great again” is an ahistorical utopia. But to the pragmatic American mind, jobs and security sound pretty good after decades of crisis, austerity, and terrorism. The fact that he is already rich and therefore claims he is “not owned by anyone” is also appealing to those who rightly suspect that Wall Street owns most politicians. And although he lies perpetually through his teeth, when he does tell the truth—for example, about the character of his political rivals or big business’s stranglehold on politics—he is seen as a “straight-talker.”
As we explained in our last editorial, the 2016 election has stressed the limits of the prevailing two-party system to the breaking point. The monotonous back and forth between carefully vetted candidates that dominated US politics for decades has come to a screeching halt. As evidence of this, take the case of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who aspired to become President Bush III. Heavily funded and favored by the Republican elite, he ran a traditional campaign in a year when tradition was the last thing voters wanted. He ignominiously exited the campaign after a pathetic showing in South Carolina.
Many heavy hitters in the Republican establishment can see the writing on the wall. The choices before them are stark: either embrace Trump or risk a split in the party sooner rather than later. Some elected officials have already announced that they will abandon the party if Trump is nominated. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the darling of the Tea Party, is already trying to distance himself from Trump while at the same time seeking to rein in the New York property magnate.
Tim Pawlenty, former Governor of Minnesota, offered this stark assessment: “The party is fractured, which isn't unusual for political parties and they almost always come back together. But this could test the outer limits of that tradition. If the Republican Party were an airplane and you're looking out the window, you’d see some pieces of the surface flying off. And you'd be wondering whether the engine or a wing is next.”
Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was even less optimistic, when he explained to CNN that by mid-March, the Republicans will know whether it is time to “throw up our hands in despair and panic.” He continued, “We’ve now backed ourselves into a corner here—and it’s not very pretty. [Super Tuesday] is not the final blow, but we will know in the next two weeks whether this is a done deal or not.”
Conservative patriarch and failed presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich also has a grim view of his party’s prospects, explaining, “Trump is putting together a very unique coalition that’s rattled a lot of people who have made a living out of trying to win within a Republican structure which is now increasingly obsolete . . . It’s a crossroads for the Republican Party and it’s a crossroads for America.”
Internal tensions have reached such a fever pitch that there is open talk of running a third-party “independent Republican” candidate if Trump wins the nomination. William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, explains that such a ticket “would simply be a one-time, emergency adjustment to the unfortunate circumstance (if it happens) of a Trump nomination . . . [It] would support other Republicans running for Congress and other offices, and would allow voters to correct the temporary mistake (if they make it) of nominating Trump.”
There is even talk of conservative Republicans supporting a candidate on the ballot line of an existing minor party, such as the Libertarian Party or the Constitution Party. Max Boot, a foreign policy advisor for Marco Rubio, declared bluntly that “I would sooner vote for Josef Stalin than I would vote for Donald Trump. There is no way in hell I would ever vote for him. I would far more readily support Hillary Clinton, or Bloomberg if he ran.”
But if the Republican Party splits, who will get the majority? Will the split involve a move to the right of Trump, which may well render such a formation unelectable on a national scale? Will Trump take over the party, a one-man show without a significant base in the party apparatus? Or will he split off himself, whether or not he wins the nomination, and establish a new right-populist formation? These and many other questions will only be answered by events. What is clear is that the Republican Party roller coaster ride has only just begun.
However, as significant as all of this is for the future of American politics, of far more interest for revolutionary Marxists are the processes taking place at the other end of the political spectrum. Although things have not yet reached the levels of tension that exist among the Republicans, there have already been several high-profile resignations from the Democratic National Committee by officials who want to throw their lot in with Sanders.
In 2008, Obama’s inspiring but ultimately empty abstractions of “hope” and “change” were sufficient to rally people to the polls. Back then, accusing a candidate of being a “socialist” was a good way to discredit them. Today, the word “socialism” is seen positively by millions, especially the youth, and even among many who consider themselves Republicans. Eight years ago, the possibility of electing the first black or woman president was foremost on many people’s minds. Today, an elderly Jew impersonated by Larry David who calls himself a socialist is giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money. How to explain the fact that millions of Americans now consider themselves socialists?
The Great American Compromise
It has been said that the American people have a genius for compromise, and that the US Constitution is its most sublime legal expression. For decades after its adoption, the Southern slave owners and the nascent Northern industrialists were able to compromise their way out of many “near misses” that threatened to rip apart the young republic. But the time eventually came when there was no more room for compromise. The old set up was torn up in an explosive and transformative revolutionary conflagration.
After the US Civil War, a new era of compromise was initiated, this time between capitalists and workers. It was a tumultuous relationship, with many a hard-fought struggle waged by the working class and its organizations against the bosses. But things eventually reached the semblance of an equilibrium.
Trotsky described this epoch in Their Morals and Ours: “In order to guarantee the triumph of their interests in big questions, the ruling classes are constrained to make concessions on secondary questions, naturally only so long as these concessions are reconciled in the bookkeeping. During the epoch of capitalistic upsurge especially in the last few decades before the [First] World War these concessions, at least in relation to the top layers of the proletariat, were of a completely genuine nature. Industry at that time expanded almost uninterruptedly. The prosperity of the civilized nations, partially, too, that of the toiling masses increased. Democracy appeared solid. Workers’ organizations grew.
“At the same time reformist tendencies deepened. The relations between the classes softened, at least outwardly. Thus certain elementary moral precepts in social relations were established along with the norms of democracy and the habits of class collaboration. The impression was created of an ever more free, more just, and more humane society. The rising line of progress seemed infinite to ‘common sense.’
“Instead, however, war broke out with a train of convulsions, crises, catastrophes, epidemics, and bestiality. The economic life of mankind landed in an impasse. The class antagonisms became sharp and naked. The safety valves of democracy began to explode one after the other.”
World War I was followed by an economic boom—The Roaring Twenties—and illusions in gradualist reformism were again reinforced. The dream was violently shattered by the nightmare of the Great Depression. After the chaos of the 1930s and World War II, capitalism was again stabilized temporarily, this time aided by the betrayals of Stalinism, and yet another epoch of compromise opened up. US capitalism was in an enviable position, accounting for 50% of world GDP. On this basis, a new epoch of relative social peace—at least for some layers of the population—was made possible through the postwar economic boom, which allowed unprecedented crumbs to be given to the workers. Long gone were the class struggle labor leaders of the past, replaced now by class collaborationists who saw themselves as “partners” with the bosses, whose job was to mediate the class struggle on behalf of the ruling class.
But compromise requires give-and-take. In exchange for a stable job, modest benefits, and a somewhat comfortable retirement, millions of workers were willing to compromise their dreams and aspirations for a more interesting and exciting existence. Work on the line in an auto plant wasn’t particularly easy or fun, but it provided for a relatively high quality of life, even without a college degree. But by the 1970s and into the 1980s, as the postwar boom sputtered out, this era of compromise, too, ran aground. However, with few militant leaders in place to lead the fight back, American labor entered a long decline, accompanied by a precipitous fall in living standards for all workers.
Fast forward several more decades. Today there is no “give” by the bosses—only “take.” Give-backs, concessions, and shrinking benefits are the norm when it comes to union contracts, while those without a union are sinking even faster. On the basis of bitter personal experience, millions of Americans are coming to understand that this is as good as it gets under capitalism—and they are looking for a way out.
2008: A tipping point
Eight years ago, in the middle of a presidential election, the country entered an unprecedented economic meltdown. It marked a “before and after” in US economic, political, and social history and consciousness. As many as 800,000 jobs were being lost every month. Years of Bush’s “war on terror” had drained the treasury and exhausted the country. Wall Street and the capitalists had not been as discredited in generations. The ruling class needed to pull a rabbit out of a hat. They did so in the form of Barack Obama. Handsome, eloquent, and offering a vision of “hope and change,” millions of people rallied around him and elected the country’s first black president. Despite the heartfelt illusions of millions, we explained that Obama would ultimately be “more of the same,” and that American workers would have to pass through the “School of the Democrats.”
Disappointment rapidly set in. President Obama sent home the vast network of organizers who had gotten the vote out for him. Despite controlling both the House and the Senate for the first two years of his administration, he continued Bush’s economic and military policies. The Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it much easier for workers to join a union, was tossed aside. Obamacare was nothing like the single-payer version supported by most Americans. Even the prison camp at Guantanamo, set up in the aftermath of September 11, remains operational to this day. In 2012, he was unenthusiastically reelected. We explained at the time, however, that “the more things stay the same, the more they change.” Beneath the surface of society, the molecular process of revolution was simmering.
Now, as we near the end of Obama’s final term, the US is a very different country. We have passed through the experience of the Wisconsin uprising, the Occupy movement, federal recognition of same-sex marriage, the lowering of the Confederate flag in South Carolina, the Black Lives Matter movement, and much more. The apparent apolitical apathy of the youth has turned into its opposite. Just as Spain’s anti-politics Indignados movement eventually found a political expression in the meteoric rise of Podemos, young Americans in particular have begun to awaken to politics in a big way.
The world they live in is not the same as their parents’ and grandparents’, and their political attitudes reflect this. They have never known and will never know the relative stability of the postwar world. There is no guaranteed job, mortgage, car loan, or retirement to anchor them to the system. Theirs is a world of crisis, revolution, and change, combined with instant worldwide cultural exchange and communication. They have no firm loyalties to any party or politician and the pillars of bourgeois society have little authority in their eyes. As Marx explained, they live in a world in which “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
In these conditions, millions of Americans—and not only the youth—are tearing up the old political playbook and are ready and open for something dramatic and new. Despite running in the traditional parties of the ruling class, both Trump and Sanders are seen as mavericks taking on the powers that be. It seems contradictory, but is in fact perfectly understandable, given the US context and history, that many voters are torn between Sanders and Trump.
Political system in crisis
The overwhelming institutional weight of the Democratic and Republican Parties makes it extremely difficult for outside parties to develop into a mass force. Without the existence of an already established mass workers’ party, the pressure and polarization in society are being expressed through the two parties of the ruling class. Income and wealth statistics show that the so-called “middle class”—the backbone of the American Dream and postwar stability—has been squeezed nearly out of existence. The buffer between the poorest and the richest is getting thinner every day, blowing apart the old political equilibrium.
For far too long, Americans have been kept on a tight leash when it comes to what is politically and economically “realistic”—despite the potential for so much more being right before our eyes. That leash will snap sooner rather than later, as youth and workers strive and strain to pull free from the artificial constraints of the past.
The period we have entered will be far more similar to the 1850s than the 1950s. The years before the Civil War saw the rise and fall, split and fusion of many political parties as the balance of forces between the classes and of layers within the classes shifted one way and then another. The political strife of that era included the now-forgotten Whig, Liberty, Free Soil, American, Constitutional Union, and Know-Nothing parties. The Democrats split and transformed, and out of the chaos emerged the Republican Party, seemingly out of nowhere. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, initially a longshot to win his own party’s nomination, was elected president in a four-way vote with just 39.8% of the vote, a mere six years after the party’s formation. In time, a new equilibrium was attained, as the Northern capitalists asserted their economic domination of the country—but not without the disruptive turmoil of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
In times such as these, rapid changes and unexpected transformations are the norm, not the exception. We too must be ready to follow the twists and turns of history as the class balance of forces shifts and seeks a new equilibrium, as the basis for the old one has been upended. However, given the organic crisis of the system, there is no new equilibrium possible on the basis of capitalism. Only the socialist revolution can cut the Gordian knot of capitalist contradictions and liberate humanity from the absurdities of a system in which recurring crises of overproduction, hunger, homelessness, and unemployment affect billions in the midst of unprecedented abundance.
Unfortunately, however, although the working class has the numbers and potential power to transform the situation overnight, the lack of a farsighted leadership means that the confrontation between the classes will again involve a prolonged period of turmoil, accompanied by a wide range of unpredictable political manifestations. As we’ve noted in the past, the capitalists will come to regret not having allowed the formation of a mass labor party in the postwar period. In countries such as Britain and France, the leaders of these parties have historically played a key role in controlling the working class and staving off revolution. Without such a party in place in the US today, all bets are off, and many transmutations are possible, starting with the Sanders phenomenon.
The art of developing perspectives is an integral part of scientific socialism. The purpose of these conditional prognoses is not to provide an absolute, immutable, 100% accurate blueprint for the future—which would be impossible—but to outline the most likely processes and variants. This in turn allows our comrades and sympathizers to anticipate and therefore more efficiently orient to movements and events as they arise. Nearly two years ago, at a time when Bernie Sanders’ candidacy was merely the whisper of a rumor, we explained in our 2014 Perspectives document:
“The decay of capitalism is manifested in a variety of ways. Many people are turning inward and are lashing out in frustration on an individual basis. At present, there is a mood of resigned tension and disaffection. There is a nationwide heroin epidemic in states like Vermont. Nationally, drug overdoses have tripled since 1990, and now account for more deaths than motor vehicle crashes. Mass shootings, bombings, and murders over texting in a movie theater or overly loud music in a car are regularly in the headlines. We live in a society of economic, political, and social decline.
“But this will all eventually turn into its opposite. The workers and youth are just waiting for something to happen, for a lead, for someone to point the way forward. You can feel it in the air, on the bus, in the workplace, and at the check-out counter.
“In the coming period, in the absence of a political outlet, the workers’ aspirations to improve their position will tend to be channelled into economic struggles. We can anticipate a rise in strikes, organizing drives, and militant, class struggle tendencies in the unions. But as economic struggles and strikes are nowhere near enough to stop austerity and falling living standards for the majority, this energy will feed back into the struggle to build a labor party. Alongside these developments, interest in socialism will continue to grow, and there will be an increasingly clear understanding of what socialism really is. International events and the economic cycle will also play a big role in shaping workers’ outlook.
“As we are always at pains to explain, changes in consciousness are not linear. However, history wastes nothing, and the contradictions continue to pile up and will eventually reach a breaking point. Consciousness can and will catch up with a bang.
“The task of Marxist perspectives is not to look into a crystal ball, but to draw out the most general trends. To use a scientific analogy, American society is a nonlinear system ‘tuned to the edge of chaos.’ Any efforts to reestablish equilibrium in the economy can only lead to further instability in politics and society, and vice versa. All of these dynamics feed on and condition each other in ways that are impossible to predict precisely. We can expect many unexpected twists and turns, even though they are deeply rooted in the objective and subjective conditions themselves. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, the instability of the system has unleashed dynamics that are impossible to predict—and even harder for the ruling class to control.
“The longer the pressure builds the more explosive it will be when it finally bursts to the surface. Small, accidental incidents can express a deeper historical necessity and have an effect far out of proportion to their immediate significance. This is why, while developing the broad overview of our perspectives, we must also do our best to keep our finger on the day-to-day pulse of the working class and the youth. The coming period will be fundamentally different from the recent past. In an epoch such as this, there is no room for routinism!
“It is a dialectical contradiction that we must build our forces precisely now, at a time when the movement is at a low ebb. But history shows that once the revolution begins, it is too late to improvise the necessary leadership. Recent examples such as Tunisia and Egypt, or even Wisconsin and Occupy demonstrate this without a shadow of a doubt. Our small forces can develop an excellent analysis, but we cannot yet have a decisive effect on events. If we do not build the leadership the working class requires and deserves, no one else will. This is why, although we understand that there are no magic shortcuts to the building of the revolutionary party, we must have a healthy sense of urgency.
“We live in the most exciting historical epoch humanity has ever witnessed: the epoch of the world socialist revolution. As Trotsky explained in his 1938 classic, Their Morals and Ours, the Marxists have studied and learned from ‘the rhythm of history, that is, the dialectics of the class struggle. They also learned, it seems, and to a certain degree successfully, how to subordinate their subjective plans and programs to this objective rhythm. They learned not to fall into despair over the fact that the laws of history do not depend upon their individual tastes and are not subordinated to their own moral criteria. They learned to subordinate their individual desires to the laws of history . . .
“‘They know how to swim against the stream in the deep conviction that the new historic flood will carry them to the other shore. Not all will reach that shore; many will drown. But to participate in this movement with open eyes and with an intense will—only this can give the highest moral satisfaction to a thinking being!’
“We have been fighting against stream since the WIL was founded in 2002. But in the brief span of time that has elapsed since then, our ideas already no longer seem as radical or “out there” as they once did. The disconnect between the conditions faced by the majority and the potential for humanity to reach ever-new heights has never been more glaring. Our ideas reflect reality, while those of the labor leaders and the bourgeois politicians are increasingly at odds with the situation confronting workers and the youth. There have never been greater possibilities for our organization or for the struggle of the working class for socialism. To make this potential actual, we must train the cadres and build the IMT in the US and internationally.”
The processes described above have accelerated since these lines were written. The tide has most certainly begun to turn. Although the class struggle has not yet been expressed on the trade union front—there was only a slight uptick in strikes and days lost to strikes and lockouts in 2015 as compared to 2014—it is clear that the system is hovering on the “edge of chaos.” A barrage of sharp and sudden changes is yet in store. At the moment, the pent-up frustration is being expressed in a contradictory way through Bernie Sanders’ candidacy as a Democrat. But at a certain stage, in some form or another, this energy can and will feed back into the unions, the broader working class, and the working class’s objective need for class-independent political representation.
The Democratic Party
As we noted in a recent article on the Iowa Caucus, “The Democratic Party is neither democratic nor a party, in the usual sense of the word. It is a massively corrupt capitalist electoral machine with no unified program and no democratic internal organizational structures through which the rank and file can hold its leaders accountable. The vast majority of voters merely ‘self-identify’ as Democrat or Republican, as there is no standard criteria for membership. Although many workers vote for the Democrats and are encouraged to do so by the labor leaders (more often than not as a ‘lesser evil’), the unions are seen merely as another ‘special interest,’ almost akin to lobbyists, and there is no formal or organic connection between them and the party.”
As the world’s oldest active voter-based political party, the Democrats have changed spots many times over the last two centuries: from the party of the Jacksonian small farmers, the Southern slavocracy, and the corrupt Tammany Hall machine, to the backbone of Jim Crow segregation, the New Deal, and alleged “friends of labor.” Originally based on libertarian principles of small government and state’s and slave-owners’ rights, they are now perceived as socially liberal advocates of “big government” spending. Closely fused with Wall Street and the capitalist state, the party is one of the key pillars of bourgeois rule in the US and around the world.
The presidential nomination process, via caucuses and primaries, is intended to give the illusion of inner party democracy. But the institution of unelected superdelegates and other party rules and regulations means that in the final analysis, everything else being equal, it is the party tops and big donors who call the shots. However, in recent weeks, everything else hasn’t been equal, and Hillary Clinton’s carefully scripted campaign seemed on the verge of unraveling. Bernie Sanders was supposed to merely lend a modicum of left cover to her inevitable coronation. But the electorate has taken the idea of democracy seriously, and massively voted for Bernie’s “unrealistic” proposals, instead of Hillary’s uninspiringly pragmatic “politics of the possible.”
Despite the momentum Sanders gained in the first handful contests, Super Tuesday represents a setback, and there are still plenty of other cards the Democratic Party machine can play to stop him—long before the superdelegate “nuclear option” needs be deployed. Let’s also not forget that New Hampshire is a small rural state right next to Sanders’ home state of Vermont, and despite the enthusiasm his win there generated, it provided him with few delegates, which in the Democratic Party are allocated more or less proportionally.
Even if Sanders won more pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention, it is not at all likely that the Democrats would risk an all-out split in the party just months before the general election by giving Clinton the nomination on the basis of the superdelegates. Nothing has been decided this far in advance. Clinton also had a majority of superdelegates going into the 2008 convention, and yet they changed their votes and supported Obama, the majority winner in the primaries and caucuses. The New York Times—the mouthpiece for the more sober, Wall Street wing of the US capitalist class—has called on the superdelegates to follow the lead of the majority. The ruling class may feel differently about Sanders than they did about Obama—above all because of the forces he has begun to stir up—but they have not lost their heads entirely. Although they are worried, it would be an exaggeration to say that they are in an outright panic at this stage.
The Democratic Party machine has successfully neutralized or co-opted many attempts to push it to the left. They have always succeeded. But these are new times, and it will certainly be more complicated this time around. Much will depend on what Sanders decides to do. Nonetheless, without an organized mass opposition prepared to lead the charge against the party apparatus, especially in the unions, even the most explosive eruption will end up only letting off steam if it is not channeled into useful work.
Far from taking Sanders head-on at this stage, the serious bourgeois are treating him with kid gloves. They would far rather make the best of a bad situation and keep Sanders within the “big tent” of the party than have him spin entirely out of their control, running as an independent, with hordes of voters following him out of the Democratic Party. A race between an independent Sanders, the Democrat Clinton, Republican Trump, and possibly an independent Bloomberg, is the kind of political unpredictability the ruling class would very much like to avoid—though they will not be able to avoid it indefinitely. And if, for example, the next economic meltdown occurs between now and November, or a hard-to-control wave of labor strikes develops, they may well need to rely on Sanders’ services to try and keep things within safe channels.
The flip side of the delegates and superdelegates question is that if Hillary appears to win “fair and square,” big pressure will be brought to bear on Sanders and his supporters to back her and the Democrats. It is certainly theoretically possible that Sanders has had a secret plan all along, that he chose to run as a Democrat as part of a long-term strategy to use the party’s infrastructure as a vehicle to get his name and ideas out there, planning all along to break with them if he was not selected as their nominee. However, Sanders is not new to Washington, having served in the House and Senate since 1991. He’s an extremely seasoned and savvy politician who has voted with the Democrats for most of his career. His decision to run as their candidate was carefully considered. So far he is playing by their rules even though the cards are stacked against him.
Major shocks from many possible quarters may yet scuttle Clinton’s campaign and leave Sanders as the de facto candidate. He may do surprisingly well in upcoming contests and wrest the nomination from the DNC after all. While there is growing pressure on Sanders to run as an independent—whether he wins the Democratic nomination or not—only time will tell what course he takes. Although millions of his supporters would be bitterly disappointed, he may yet play the role of a “pied piper” who leads left-leaning voters into the swamp of the Democrats—all in the name of combatting the “greater evil.” He has, after all, stated that he “doesn’t want to end up like Ralph Nader.”
It is best to avoid making categorical statements when it comes to what a politician will or will not do, or what the result of an election may or may not be, as there are too many impossible-to-predict variables in a chaotic system such as this. But the clock is ticking. In the not too distant future, Sanders will have to make a decision that will determine his political legacy and potentially change the course of US history. Will he follow through on his word to support Clinton if she is the nominee? Will he withhold his endorsement and go home quietly? Or will he help lay the foundations for something new and necessary in American politics? Will he call on the unions to break with the Democrats and build an independent socialist labor party? If he does pursue such a course, on what basis could such a party be built?
Eroding base of support
The Republicans have seen record turnouts in primaries and caucuses throughout the candidate selection season. While the party tops are not enamored of Trump, he has energized millions of Republicans and independents in a way that a Jeb Bush simply couldn’t. In the Democrats’ camp, however, interest in the candidate selection process has dropped dramatically. Despite the enthusiasm Sanders has generated, three million fewer Democratic voters participated in Super Tuesday than in 2008. Throughout the South, between 25% and 50% fewer voters came out to the polls. This could perhaps be chalked up to decreased enthusiasm among black voters, now that Obama is not up for election. But Iowa, too, saw a 40% fall in participation by voters under 30 years of age, and despite boosting Clinton over the top, Latino voters in Nevada came out in significantly lower numbers as well.
The takeaway is that turnout in 2008 was the result of enthusiasm in Obama himself, compounded by eight years of GW Bush, in the midst of a terrifying economic meltdown. As the party in power, anyone associated with the Democratic Party label will suffer, no matter how much pressure there is at this stage to stop the Republicans, no matter how excited people are by Sanders’ ideas or the possibility of electing the first female president. These are above all “Sanders” and “Clinton” voters—not necessarily Democratic voters. Many Sanders voters have strongly asserted that they would prefer to stay home or even vote for Trump if Clinton is the candidate. Once the “lesser evil” machine ramps up, they may well change their minds, but the sentiment is clear. These voters would not give a Clinton presidency much of a honeymoon.
Loyalty to the two ruling parties, once grounded on the promise and even guarantee of a certain standard of living, is disintegrating. Millions of Republicans and independents would follow Trump out of the party without hesitation, and he himself has made it clear that he is far more loyal to his own brand than to the Republican Party in the abstract. As he recently explained to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” “I am watching television—and I am seeing ad, after ad, after ad put in by the establishment, knocking the hell out of me, and it’s really unfair. But if I leave, if I go, regardless of independent, which I may do—I mean, may or may not. But if I go, I will tell you, these millions of people that joined, they’re all coming with me.”
According to Gallup, a record number of Americans—a plurality of 43%—consider themselves “independent” as compared to “Democrat” or “Republican,” a substantial increase from 35% in 2008. Both Sanders and Trump have tapped into this base of discontent, but more voters have abandoned the incumbent Democrats (from 36% to 30%) than the opposition Republicans (from 28% to 26%). According to Jocelyn Kiley of the Pew Research Center, “Younger people tend to be less likely to affiliate with parties than older people. This is as pronounced as it's ever been . . . People give some of the most negative ratings of either party that we’ve seen in the last 20 years.”
Behind the diminishing support for the mainstream parties and candidates is an even more dangerous reality, pregnant with implications for the future: support for capitalism itself is falling precipitously.
For decades, the Democrats enjoyed the almost guaranteed support of an overwhelming majority of trade union, black, Latino, and LGBTQ+ voters, as well a healthy overall majority among women and the youth. This was to be the foundation of Hillary’s nomination and eventual installment in the White House. However, these layers of the population—the most downtrodden and affected by the grinding economic crisis—have not rallied around her as expected. Instead, many have responded enthusiastically to Sanders. Although she pulled off a win on Super Tuesday, her march to the coronation has been nowhere near as smooth as she anticipated.
Gail Sheehy outlined what is happening in an opinion piece for the New York Times: “Kathryn Levy, a poet and arts educator of Mrs. Clinton’s vintage, said: ‘Between Hillary coming so close to winning the nomination in ’08, and an African-American man winning the election, that narrow mold of who could be president has already been broken . . . A female editor at a prestigious national magazine confided: I should be jumping up and down with enthusiasm for Hillary’s candidacy, but I’m not.’ I asked if she would vote for Hillary in the end. ‘I am waiting to see if Bernie wins Iowa, she whispered. If so, I’m right there!’
“In the 2008 presidential election, many boomer women, especially self-described ‘born feminists’ like Lorraine Dusky, a writer and activist based on Long Island, started out as monotheistic Hillary worshipers. When a young, passionate African-American senator stole her thunder, ‘most of the Democratic women I knew turned to Obama.’ . . . This time, Ms. Dusky, having passed 70, said: ‘I’m feeling Clinton fatigue. Even exhaustion.’
“The Rev. Katrina Foster, a Lutheran pastor for 21 years, told me, ‘I’m no longer interested in the physical packaging of these candidates.’ Pastor Foster, who is gay, acknowledged that Mrs. Clinton finally had the right position on gay issues. ‘But we now have won rights, I’m more concerned with what we have lost — what it means to be an American.’ She is leaning toward supporting Bernie Sanders.”
Huge numbers of young women have enthusiastically backed Sanders’ campaign. Gloria Steinem’s smug assertion that these women have flocked to Sanders because “that’s where the boys are,” is just one example of the growing disconnect between the old guard and the youth. Then there was Madeleine Albright’s infamous comment that “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” which provides a valuable lesson in dialectics. For 25 years, that line apparently played well to audiences. Now things have turned into their opposite. Not only didn’t it connect, but it badly backfired. Then there is Clinton herself, who has scolded young women like a disappointed parent for not backing her, including this young black woman.
A recent article in the New York Times provides the following insights on the growing disconnect, based on discussions with students at Penn State University:
She and her friends note that the nation already has a black president; they see themselves in a postgender world. As Ms. Sandidge, also African-American, said, “I don’t find gender that important.” . . .
It is as if Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, based partly on revealing the power of female voters, has instead revealed something else: a generational schism that threatens to undermine it. Mrs. Clinton lost the women’s vote in New Hampshire by 11 percentage points. Broken down by age, the results were even more striking: She led by 19 points among women 65 and older, but trailed by a huge margin, 59 points, among millennial voters, ages 18 to 29 . . .
Many younger women already take for granted some of the gains that those before them fought for, and they identify strongly with their generation’s collectiveconcerns — student debt, finding a job in postrecession America, and the fight for gay rights and a more flexible view of gender than their parents considered . . .
Polls suggest Americans in both parties long ago became open to a female occupant of the Oval Office. By 1999, as Elizabeth Dole contemplated running for the 2000 Republican nomination (she did, unsuccessfully), the Gallup organization found that 92 percent of Americans said they would vote for a woman. Ms. Lake said that number was inflated, because voters are not often truthful with pollsters. Still, when Gallup first asked that question, in 1937, the figure was 33 percent.
Yet as Kellyanne Conway, a Republican strategist who runs the “super PAC” that backs Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, says, it is impossible to divorce a theoretical question about women from the realities of a specific candidate. If young women are not excited by Mrs. Clinton, Ms. Conway says, it is because they reject her message, or do not relate to her.
“People no longer hear, ‘Do you want a woman to be president?’” she said. “They hear, ‘Do you want that woman?’”
And what about the so-called “black vote,” which was likewise supposed to be all but guaranteed to Hillary? Earlier on in the campaign season, Sanders was confronted by Black Lives Matter activists who called him out publicly for not making police brutality a central part of his campaign. To many, this awkward clash seemed like a confirmation that an “old white dude” couldn’t possibly connect with black voters. His response was to raise the issue of police brutality in his stump speeches and to bring several BLM activists on to his staff, some of whom have gone on to play a leading role in generating support for him in states like South Carolina.
Hillary lost this bellwether state in 2008 to Obama, and this time around, it was felt by many that black South Carolinians “owed” the Clintons. This view was summed up by former Senate Democratic staffer Jimmy Williams, a native of the Palmetto State, in a pre-primary article on MSNBC: “Hillary’s lead in South Carolina is simply insurmountable, due specifically to the black vote, and this notion that he’s peeling away black voters from her is a myth. What black voters in South Carolina want is simple. They want someone who loves God, won’t lie to them, will protect America and will fight against racism. And the Clintons are literally family to black South Carolinians.”
However, this paternalistic attitude, which sees black voters merely as political capital, an amalgamation of quid pro quo favors to be called in, come election season, backfired among the youth. Although Hillary succeeded in maintaining the support of a majority of black voters, there is a clear generational split, as the youth drift toward Sanders. Sanders comes across as sincere and honest, and this connects with those who have come to scorn the artificially choreographed poll-and-focus-group-driven Clinton machine. Most importantly it gives lie to the myth that black voters somehow care only about “black issues.”
Issues such as police brutality resonate deeply with black Americans. But the reality is that this many-times oppressed layer of the working class has little to lose and much to gain if capitalism is overthrown and replaced by genuine socialism. Historically, there are deep reserves of radicalism, pro-socialist, anti-imperialist, and pro-union sentiment among the black population. Black workers are more likely to be in a union than any other demographic. The vast majority of black Americans are workers, often among the worst paid, and it is working class issues that resonate the most.
Once again, the truth is concrete. Sanders’ call for socialism, a higher minimum wage, universal education and health care connects far more with the average black worker, especially the youth, than something Bill Clinton may have done “for black people” 20 years ago. Nonetheless, Sanders faced an uphill struggle to make up for decades of political preparation for these elections. The Clintons are a household name and have effectively been on a constant presidential campaign since the 1970s—promising “eight years of Bill, eight years of Hill.” But once again, the generational divisions are coming into focus.
As for LGBTQ+ voters, Sanders has supported marriage equality for decades, whereas Clinton only recently opportunistically changed her position to align with majority opinion. It is difficult to find solid statistics, but the quotes in the New York Times cited above would seem to indicate that this too is no longer a guaranteed demographic for the Democratic Party establishment candidate. And Latino voters, while still overwhelmingly for Clinton, are less enthusiastically Democratic than in the past, as was evident in Nevada. There is surely a generational gap deepening here as well.
The labor movement
This brings us to the all-important and decisive question: the organized working class. Although numerically weakened by decades of attacks and sell-outs by the class-collaborationist leadership, union workers represent a powerful force in society. In 2015, the overall unionization rate was only 11.1%. However, this amounts to 14.8 million union members, with another 1.6 million workers who report no union affiliation but whose jobs are covered by a union contract. 35.2% of the public sector is unionized, above all teachers, federal, state, and municipal workers. And while only 6.7% of workers in the private sector are unionized, this is in key sectors of the economy: utilities (21.4%), transportation and warehousing (18.9%), educational services (13.7%), telecommunications (13.3%), and construction (13.2%).
Tensions have risen within many unions over the question of endorsing Clinton versus Sanders. Many large unions rushed to endorse Clinton early in the campaign season to cut across this. Despite the pressure from above to stick to the “tried-and-true,” several unions went ahead and endorsed Sanders anyway, including the influential National Nurses United, American Postal Workers Union, and the Communication Workers of America. In a clear nod to the pressure against a presumptive endorsement of Clinton, the AFL-CIO has declined to endorse one candidate or another for the time being.
Millions of workers are excited by Sanders despite his running as a Democrat. Millions of others are still on the sidelines precisely because of his association with the party in power. Although Sanders’ program is left-reformist at best, all of the above shows that there is indeed a natural basis for a labor party based on the unions and rising support for socialist ideas.
Sanders’ broad fundraising base highlights this potential. He has received donations from over four million individuals and out-fundraised Clinton in February ($43 million to her $30 million). His refusal of money from Wall Street is a major source of his support. The unions have even more resources, above all the real-world social networks and infrastructure that could organize a massive rank-and-file campaign to get out the vote if it mobilized its full potential around an independent campaign. In many states, were it not for the unions, Clinton would have little in the way of a ground game. If the plug were pulled and instead channeled into an independent bid by Sanders, it would mean the effective end of the Democratic Party in its current form.
How will a labor party be formed?
Is it possible that a split in the Democrats could lead to the formation of a labor party? Of course it is. For years we have explained that a split off from the Democrats, which would eventually break away the major unions, was one possibility. In Brazil, the Workers’ Party (PT) was formed on the basis of many smaller unions and the broader working class, before eventually winning over the larger unions in the CUT federation. We even named potential Democrats such as Dennis Kucinich, who at one point might have split away over support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We pointed to potential support from unions such as the National Nurses United, whose leaders supported the short-lived effort to form the Labor Party in the 1990s.
The US Marxists have never had a rigid approach, or mechanically asserted that the process would be exactly as it was in Britain, where the unions took the initiative to set up the political party, though even there it was not a linear process. That was our basic working hypothesis, based on the conditions in the US. But we always left open the possibility of other variants. Given the state of the trade union leadership, we believed that this was not necessarily the most likely scenario, and that something far more amorphous was likely in the initial stages. But the objective necessity would remain a class-independent party with the backing of the main unions, even if they didn’t all break from the Democrats at once.
Clearly, there is no preconceived schema that can be imposed, as it would be impossible to work out in advance the exact path to a labor party. What we can say is that whatever form it takes, its coalescence will be a process, with many streams of struggle, both political and economic, both in and out of the existing union structures, coming together over time. Depending on how events unfold, it is even possible that the future labor party will be called “The Democratic Party.” If that is the case, we will be there with our class. What concerns us above all is the content of such a party, not the outward form or the name. Whatever zigs and zags history takes, we will retain our connection to the working class and its organizations, fighting for our program and the socialist revolution.
Unfortunately, the current crop of pro-capitalist labor leaders has no interest in rocking the boat. In fact, they have become the greatest objective obstacle on the path of independent working class organization, both political and economic. But the class struggle in the coming period will violently shake up the labor leadership. They will no longer be able to coast along on empty promises of better things to come if only the lesser evil is supported. This worked in 2008 and 2012, but with literally nothing given in exchange by Obama, it is becoming a harder and harder sell.
No matter who ends up as the Democratic nominee, the “lesser evil” pressure to “defeat the right” will be merciless in the general election. To help ground us in resisting this onslaught, we should be clear that lesser evilism represents the pressure of alien classes: both those who don’t want the workers to take economic and political power, and those who have no confidence that this is possible.
Although polls are mixed as to whether or not Trump can be beaten by a Democrat, it remains to be seen whether the lesser evil mantra will have the same effect as in the past. When you cry wolf once too often, people stop listening. The bitter lesson that US workers will likely be forced to endure at a certain stage, is that by not building a viable alternative to the “lesser evil,” the “greater evil” will eventually make its way back into power. Needless to say, a Trump presidency would quickly disabuse those with illusions in his populist demagogy, further eroding support in the two-party system, and creating even more potential labor party supporters. The wave of protests and mobilizations his election would unleash would introduce even more instability to the equation.
Which way forward?
The contradictions and disparities of capitalism are in many ways more acute and intractable in the US than anywhere else on the planet. The protective layer of fat accumulated during the postwar years is rapidly burning away. Virtually all the key institutions of capitalist rule are discredited. The old guard of both parties is rapidly blowing its political capital, which will mean even less room for maneuver in the future. The capitalist class is no longer sure how to maintain its rule. This is the explanation for the incredible array of candidates who have presented themselves in this year’s election.
Enormous social energy is building up in this country, and once provided an outlet, it will set the entire planet on a different course. If Sanders loses the nomination, chooses not to endorse Clinton, and instead sets out on his own, it could have far-reaching consequences. Even if he fails to win the presidency as an independent in 2016, it could lay the foundations for a mass working-class alternative at all levels of US politics. It would shock the union leadership out of complacency and energize the rank and file, widening the chasm that exists between their interests. However, none of this is guaranteed this electoral cycle, and we will have to attentively see how things play out.
One thing is certain: the question of how socialism is perceived in the US will never be the same. The Marxists can build our forces as a result. It is crucial, therefore, that we have a sense of proportion and position ourselves for the future. There is a big difference between perspectives and wishful thinking, just as there is a difference between the first and the ninth month of pregnancy. There are no shortcuts to building the revolutionary party. We are in the early days of this process and cannot get carried away. The next few months will be extremely interesting and important, but the coming years will be even more momentous, and we we must prepare for this.
We cannot take any responsibility whatsoever for the Democrats in their present form. Sanders is a historical accident, in the sense that nature abhors a vacuum, and he has filled it. What is most important is not Sanders or his campaign as such, but the social forces he has awakened to political life and activity. Those most interested in joining a revolutionary Marxist organization such as the IMT can already see through the Democrats. As we have explained, they are excited about Sanders despite the Democrats, not because of them. They can see that support for his campaign represents a tidal change of public opinion and can sense the opportunity this represents to spread the ideas of socialism.
Even if Sanders succeeds in winning the presidency as a Democrat, none of the fundamental problems facing US workers can be resolved within the limits of capitalism. Likewise, if he breaks with them and runs as an independent, the fundamental need to break with capitalism would remain. There is no way forward on the basis of this system. We must explain that even the most modest of reforms will be difficult if not impossible to implement in the midst of the capitalist crisis, and that even if some positive reforms can be wrenched from the bosses, capitalist exploitation and oppression will continue. In order to fundamentally change society, far more will be required than a vote at the ballot box, the passing of a few laws, or modestly higher taxes on the rich. We must patiently explain that what is really needed is the nationalization of the big banks and the Fortune 500 under the democratic control of the workers, to be run in the interests of the majority, not the 1%.
Sanders often says that his campaign “is not just electing a president, it’s about transforming America.” He has also stated repeatedly that one person cannot bring about the kind of change that is needed. Millions of people can relate to these statements and want to do something about it. So far, Sanders has restricted himself to working within the existing political and economic system. He has called in the abstract for a mass movement to support his candidacy, but has not initiated the process whereby the necessary organizational structures can actually be formed, structures which simply do not and cannot exist within the parameters of the Democratic Party machine.
Super Tuesday graphically exposed the limitations of attempting to bring about change through the Democratic Party, and the potential that exists to build something viable outside that electoral machine. This is why we say: if you want to fight for Bernie’s progressive ideas and against the billionaires, you must break with the Democrats, break with capitalism, build a labor party, and fight for socialist revolution! Although for many this sounds “too radical,” those who are looking for serious answers to a serious crisis are very open to these ideas. And as we have seen, opinions can change quite rapidly. Millions of those who reject this perspective today will embrace it in the future.
Through a series of successive approximations, the US working class will test one party and leader after another. In time, American workers will come to the conclusion that nothing less than a socialist revolution is required. As Leon Trotsky explained in If America Should Go Communist, “Yet communism can come in America only through revolution, just as independence and democracy came in America. The American temperament is energetic and violent, and it will insist on breaking a good many dishes and upsetting a good many apple carts before communism is firmly established. Americans are enthusiasts and sportsmen before they are specialists and statesmen, and it would be contrary to the American tradition to make a major change without choosing sides and cracking heads.”
Under American conditions, this process will unfold in many dramatic stages. There will be exciting victories and demoralizing defeats, but the workers will learn from the experience. What is most encouraging for the future is the attitude of the youth. This is the real guarantee for fundamental transformation in this country and around the world in the historical period we have entered.
The crisis of capitalism will not end until capitalism is ended. And until the necessary revolutionary leadership is forged, ending capitalism will be impossible. When the revolution reaches a crescendo, if the Marxists are not present in sufficient numbers, the revolutionary floodtide will eventually ebb. This must imbue us with a sense of urgency.
Engels on the US working class
Karl Marx’s lifelong collaborator, Frederick Engels, made the following scathing indictment of US politics in 1892, which provides useful insights into the support for Donald Trump 124 years later: “The small farmer and the petty bourgeois will hardly ever succeed in forming a strong party; they consist of elements that change too rapidly—the farmer is often a migratory farmer, farming two, three, and four farms in succession in different states and territories, immigration and bankruptcy promote the change in personnel, and economic dependence upon the creditor also hampers independence—but to make up for it they are a splendid element for politicians, who speculate on their discontent in order to sell them out to one of the big parties afterward.
“The tenacity of the Yankees, who are even rehashing the Greenback humbug, is a result of their theoretical backwardness and their Anglo-Saxon contempt for all theory. They are punished for this by a superstitious belief in every philosophical and economic absurdity, by religious sectarianism, and by idiotic economic experiments, out of which, however, certain bourgeois cliques profit.”
But the same Engels made the following remarks in 1886 on the process of the formation of a labor party:
“The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organization of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party. And this step has been taken, far more rapidly than we had a right to hope, and that is the main thing. That the first program of this party is still confused and highly deficient, that it has set up the banner of Henry George, these are inevitable evils but also only transitory ones. The masses must have time and opportunity to develop and they can only have the opportunity when they have their own movement—no matter in what form so long as it is only their own movement—in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn wisdom by hurting themselves.
“The movement in America is in the same position as it was with us before [the revolutions of] 1848; the really intelligent people there will first of all have the same part to play as that played by the Communist League among the workers’ associations before 1848. Except that in America now things will go infinitely more quickly . . . If we in Europe do not hurry up the Americans will soon be ahead of us. But it is just now that it is doubly necessary to have a few people there from our side with a firm seat in their saddles where theory and long-proved tactics are concerned.”
With a delay of well over a century, the US working class is once again shaking off the cobwebs of a long hibernation and seeking alternatives to the existing state of affairs. In a world of endless distractions, sensory, and information inputs, the need for theoretical clarity, perspectives, and patience is greater than ever. Turbulent waters are necessarily muddy and confused, and things will only get more complicated before they are clarified. But we study dialectical materialism for a reason: in order to apply it to complex processes such as this.
It is said that the darkest hour is before the dawn. The Marxists have passed through a tough period in which socialist ideas were marginalized in US society and a general malaise and apolitical apathy prevailed. We had relatively few opportunities to connect with wider layers of the workers and youth. But that is beginning to change. While there are plenty of storm clouds ahead, the first rays of light are beginning to shine above the horizon. As the curve of historical development accelerates, we can look ahead with great optimism to a revolutionary socialist future.