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Debate: How Can We Continue the Bernie Revolution and Build a New Political Party?

04-Apr-2020Jacob Smith and Bobby Lambertz

While the COVID-19 crisis might throw the Democratic primary election into turmoil, it appears very likely that Bernie Sanders will not be able to win the Democratic nomination. This poses a question starkly to Sanders supporters — how can we best continue the momentum of Bernie’s historic campaign? Two petitions were initiated recently to address this question — one by Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant and another petition by some DSA activists. Both petitions argue for Sanders supporters to build a new political party but present different strategies for the steps needed to form a new party.

In response, socialist activist Jacob Smith, writing in personal capacity, wrote the following critique of the petition by DSA activists. Bobby Lambertz, one of the initial signers of the petition of DSA activists, replies below. We are pleased to publish this exchange as part of our commitment to facilitating constructive debate on important questions facing the socialist and working-class movements.

The Case for a New Party

By Jacob Smith

Ever since it became clear that a major movement was forming around Bernie Sanders’ campaign, Socialist Alternative has been calling for a conference of Bernie supporters after the primary election to discuss steps forward and, we hoped, lay the foundation for a new party of the working class. This election cycle, Socialist Alternative endorsed Bernie, and branches across the country have been very active in their local primary campaigns although, like in 2016, we were circumspect about Bernie’s chances of winning. After a brief period when it looked like Bernie might win a plurality of delegates, if not an outright majority, and the DNC would either have to make their peace with Bernie or try to steal the nomination from him in a brokered convention, SA’s caution was unfortunately vindicated. It is now much more likely that the nomination will be seized by Biden the way it was by Clinton, through smaller, more opaque, maneuvering that is less likely to produce an explosive situation at the national convention.

On March 11th SA published an article, authored by Kshama Sawant, calling on Bernie supporters to organize a conference in Milwaukee the same time as the convention and to form a new party, “of, by, and for working people.” This article was accompanied by a petition. DSA members, many of whom are in the Reform & Revolution (R&R) caucus, have now launched another petition calling on DSA national leadership to organize a conference for Bernie supporters to form a Democratic Socialist Party, but instead of aiming to coincide with the convention in Milwaukee, they propose “broad left conferences regionally and nationally in 2021.”

Although similar in aim, the two petitions present starkly different attitudes. Kshama Sawant writes:

We will not settle for empty promises and we are tired of being told we’re asking for too much. We will not accept sky-high prescription drug costs, endless student debt, constant war, disastrous trade deals that take millions of jobs overseas, or climate catastrophe. We need to fight in every remaining state to win every vote we can for the political revolution and to build the biggest possible base of support for Bernie Sanders’ ideas. But most importantly, we need to transform our political revolution into a mighty movement to take on the DNC and the corporate and political elite, and to build a new party.

The tone in the petition co-signed by Seattle DSA activist Mimi Harris is less confrontational and does not even call for Bernie’s campaign to keep going:

We continue to fight with Bernie for his program. Even so, it’s clear that Bernie is thinking about ending his campaign as there’s no viable way forward to win the nomination. Our efforts were not strong enough to win on the hostile terrain of the Democratic Party and faced with the biased reporting of the corporate media. However, we are winning the battle of ideas.

In fact, R&R makes it clear that they feel SA’s call is premature and simply amounts to a “declaration of a new party now.” Although R&R is right to argue that “at the moment, there is no other left-wing working-class organization better positioned to lay the organizational and political groundwork for a future break with the Democratic Party,” their conclusion that socialists and other Bernie supporters must simply sit out the 2020 presidential race is misguided.

It is possible that with the COVID pandemic, a conference in the summer of 2020 will be impossible. If the federal government rapidly scales up its pandemic response and begins mass testing, dramatically expands the number of available ICU units and ventilators, and implements a vigorous economic relief program along the lines of what Bernie is calling for, the outbreak could be contained by June. Given the past and current actions of the Trump administration as well as what the Republican and Democratic congressional leadership are proposing, that level of response is highly unlikely. That means that this debate might be academic, but there is a strong case to hold a conference to found a new party in 2020 and not to abstain from the presidential election. There is no reason that the groundwork for these conferences cannot begin in the coming months, with the aim of holding the actual events as soon as the public health situation allows.

If remotely possible, a new Democratic Socialist Party should run a serious campaign for the presidency in 2020. Nearly every poll reveals that Bernie’s platform is widely popular and simultaneously, that the majority of Americans do not believe that either the Democrats or the Republicans represent their interests. A critical mass of people are ready to break from the two party system and are waiting only for a credible alternative. If Bernie himself were to lead that break, a sizable portion of the Democratic electorate would follow him, along with a smaller section of working class Trump voters. Although nothing is guaranteed, it is probable that Bernie could defeat both Biden and Trump in November. In the more likely event that he declined to take that step, a smaller, but still substantial, group could be consolidated into a small mass workers party capable of contesting local elections in major urban centers and gaining state and congressional representation in most regions of the country.

A presidential run in 2020 for that small mass workers party would be largely propagandistic. It would be designed to raise the profile of the party and to sharply define itself as a wholly separate entity from the Democrats. It would be vital that there were no concessions to lesser evilism, but we have to acknowledge that many loyal Democratic voters, particularly older African Americans and middle class suburban liberals, would find this very alienating. That is a sacrifice we will have to make. We cannot expect the base of a new mass workers party to be merely a subset of the base of the Democratic Party. If that were the case, Bernie would have been able to win the Democratic Primary. Especially as congressional Democrats completely fail to offer a left alternative to Trump’s COVID response, an association with the Democratic Party will become poisonous.

As the health and economic crises around COVID grow more severe, fault lines will begin to appear in the Democratic Party. The relief programs being proposed by Trump, Pelosi, and Sanders are all wildly different and as the standards of living for ordinary Americans decline sharply over the course of 2020, the left wing of the Democratic party around Sanders will have to either break publicly with the DNC centrists or discredit themselves before a highly politicized and engaged public. This fracture will be exacerbated if Trump implements even a mild direct relief program that the Democrats oppose from the right. In addition to this, if Biden continues to be missing in action, his performance in upcoming primaries will decline, assuming those elections are held at all. This is why it is not out of the question that, one way or another, Bernie continues his presidential run through November. The centrist Democratic establishment and the mainstream media may have written off Bernie’s campaign and all but coronated Biden already, but we should not give up so easily. We cannot underestimate the radically destabilizing effects of the pandemic and the economic crash it has catalyzed.

The critical question for us remains, which forces will form the new party that both SA and R&R are proposing? R&R is correct to identify that compelling DSA leadership as well as progressive unions and other organizations to break with the Democratic Party will be a major challenge but if the new party has genuine internal democracy, there will be many independent socialists eager to join in. Especially if they were allowed to affiliate and retain their own internal structures, Socialist Alternative and other revolutionary socialist organizations would probably leap at the opportunity. A new mass workers party would also attract many former members of the International Socialist Organization and could cause splits out of older parties like the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the Freedom Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers’ Party, and the Communist Party.

However, it might be an understatement to say that a new party comprised primarily of these elements, Nick Brana’s Movement For A People’s Party, and the most alienated “Bernie or bust” layers would not be a healthy organization.

There are three broad groups that ultimately need to be won over:

  1. Left progressives, primarily in and around the Democratic Party.
  2. Social democrats, primarily in DSA.
  3. Organized labor, particularly the more progressive, left, or fighting unions in the service and transportation sectors.

The first group includes high profile left democrats like Bernie Sanders, Nina Turner, Pramila Jayapal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Lee Carter as well as organizations like the Working Families Party, Brand New Congress, and the Justice Democrats. These elements will probably have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, away from the Democratic Party, although as we discussed above, the COVID crash could accelerate that process, particularly if the DNC centrists suffer a dramatic loss in credibility.

The second group includes the mainstream, Jacobin wing, of DSA, while recognizing that this group contains significant internal divisions. Bread & Roses is probably the strongest single caucus in DSA and lists building a “mass party of the working class” in their program. Others like the Collective Power Network and Socialist Majority tend to agree on many organizational questions and broad programmatic issues but have been more circumspect on the question of splitting from the Democratic Party. R&R’s petition appears to be aimed at building support for a Democratic Socialist Party within these groups and the majority of active DSA members whose views they represent. The main resistance will come from the elements that are more closely tied to the Democratic Party through the trade union and NGO bureaucracies. But among the thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of rank-and-file DSA members who volunteered on Bernie’s campaign, the basic thrust of what both petitions lay out should not be a hard sell.

Many on the left fall into the twin traps of either uncritically accepting the leadership of the trade unions or condemning them entirely. We need to be frank about the often conservative and sometimes outright reactionary politics of many union leaders but we cannot let that frankness boil over into untempered hostility. What this means is that winning over organized labor to the project of building a new workers party will require patience and dedication. We can expect a substantial electoral base among unionized workers long before any but the most radical union leaders sign on. We cannot afford to tail the trade union bureaucracies and give deference to their ossified defeatism but simultaneously, mobilizing organized labor to the program of a new mass workers party would be a high priority.

We should be honest with ourselves that the small mass workers party we could build in 2020 will not meaningfully include the 1st and 3rd groups that we have outlined. But there is no reason to think that the revolutionary socialist forces in the US cannot be combined with the most radical Bernie supporters and a large portion of the social democrats in DSA to form a fighting organization capable of becoming a center of gravity and, over time, attracting broader forces, like the left wing of the Democratic Party and organized labor. The vital point here is that we become that center of gravity not by welding together the leaders of these groups but by winning over their working class members and constituents. Realignment begins in the grassroots and, if those shift, the tree tops will move with them.

It may seem like abstaining from the 2020 presidential election cuts across the objections of Democratic Party loyalists and the general mood of lesser-evilism. The careerists and grifters who cling to the Democratic Party out of craven self interest will not be any more prepared for bold political action in 2021 than they are in 2020. We must separate the wheat from the chaff and let those whose commitment to the Democrats is not pragmatic but personal, fall through the cracks. Only by doing this can we project a message that will cut through the alienation and depoliticization that has gripped the American working class since the 1970s. We must be able to boldly say, “We are not like any political party you have ever seen, we are as different from the Democrats as we are from the Republicans, and that is why we are backing neither Trump nor Biden. Support us or not, but do not be confused about who we are.”


How to Build Toward a New Party of the Working Class?

By Bobby Lambertz

This month, two similar petitions have been launched regarding the rigging of the Democratic Presidential Primary. One by Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant calls for the socialist left to launch, this summer, a campaign to build a new socialist party. The other, by the Democratic Socialists of America’s Mimi Harris, calls for a series of conferences beginning after the November election which should bring activists and organizations together to discuss launching a new party. Socialist Alternative’s Jacob Smith recently published an article comparing the two proposals and defending Sawant’s. Jacob’s article goes even further, calling for Bernie Sanders himself to break with the Democrats and continue running for president as an independent in the November 2020 election. Here I respond as an initial signer of Harris’ petition.

Jacob Smith's article is animated by the urge that the Left should not and cannot sit out the 2020 election cycle. Defending Sawant’s petition, he says that "If remotely possible, a new Democratic Socialist Party should run a serious campaign for the presidency in 2020." How, with 216 days until the November election as of the time of his publication, can we mount such a serious campaign? On a purely logistical level, it's already impossible in many states to even appear on the ballot, and in all the rest it's virtually impossible. Unfortunately, we do not have a Democratic Socialist Party ready or able to mount a “serious campaign.” The whole debate is trying to answer the question: how do we get there?

First, is the electoral field really the main arena for this question? In my view, the main question is this: How best can we move the millions of Sandernistas and their most organized expression, the DSA, in the direction of founding a new Democratic Socialist Party? We must engage in that battle, and simply asserting a need is not the same as fighting for it. We must take the time to recruit Sandernistas to the DSA and persuade them as well as the DSA and the broad Left of the need for a new party. Even if we want to focus heavily on the electoral field and argue for the importance of the elections in 2020, let’s pick our battles. Kshama Sawant’s election in 2013 was a significant breakthrough. However, at the time there was discussion on which race and opponent would give the best opportunity not only for victory, but also to popularize socialist ideas and raise the level of consciousness.

We are not arguing for socialists to sit out the 2020 campaign season. Across the country, the DSA is running dozens of candidates, supporting ballot initiatives, building left-wing coalitions, organizing communities, and in many aspects is already acting as a party. The DSA is, by far, the largest socialist force in the country, with nearly 60,000 dues-paying members. Currently there is a mood among many that we need to break with the Democrats, but there is no consensus around when or how to concretely do it. Our petition advocates for time and a forum in which to develop that consensus, convince the majority of DSA members of the necessity, and move forward in an organized and deliberate way. We will continue to fight for Bernie’s platform, to knock on doors and organize events, to recruit and educate our members, and while doing this we will build among the disillusioned diehard Sanders supporters for a new mass party. We are launching this petition now, to start a debate within DSA, to try to move decisive forces for a new attempt to forge a Democratic Socialist Party forward. That's not sitting out 2020.

If Bernie himself were to lead a break this summer, Smith argues, “a sizable portion of the Democratic electorate would follow him, along with a smaller section of working class Trump voters.” I and many in the DSA would agree with a break on these terms, but Bernie has publicly and repeatedly promised to support whoever the nominee is, and will almost certainly repeat this mistake from 2016. It’s fantasy to hope for him to continue through November and we have to make our plans based on what is actually likely to happen, not what we wish would happen.

I don't think Socialist Alternative's call is premature simply because it's too early. I think it's premature because the necessary groundwork has not yet been done. There are major forces we need to rally: the Sandernistas, especially the labor for Bernie wing, the activists in workplaces and community groups, and DSA. Bernie Sanders himself could have the biggest impact, however we agree Bernie is most likely unwilling to move with us. A call on him, on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on Rashida Tlaib and many more is still helpful to either help them move into motion, or to appeal to their supporters and get into a dialogue with their supporters, where their leaders lag behind. But let's face it: Many in the DSA do not yet see the potential for this move and even more within the broader Bernie movement are not yet there.

A new working class party would need the support of some labor unions, at least some influential rank-and-file opposition. Or it would need to rely on some influence in nation-wide movements to reach millions of people. Or at least it should focus on the potential that lays in the promising 60,000 members of DSA. To ignore the fact that a new party needs weight in the class struggle, to pretend that a few thousand could just go it alone, would disorient people and drive valuable activists into cynicism.

A new party launched this summer without Bernie would consist almost exclusively of members of SA, some few elements of DSA, and little else. Bernie has demonstrated that the working class can and will give deeply to a candidate or movement that they believe in. But we must be clear and recognize that many, likely a majority, of Bernie's supporters see defeating Trump as a top priority and will hold their nose to vote for the corporate candidate Biden in November. Nor can we pretend that scarcely 3 months is enough time to do justice to the important work of launching a party and running a serious campaign for president. Launching a new party with such a cobbled-together strategy would make us in the best case a laughingstock and demonstrate a grave lack of seriousness, playing right into the claims of our political opponents that third parties are not and never will be viable. In a worst-case scenario, it demoralizes many who correctly recognized the corporate character of the Democratic Party, likely pushing them out of the battle for leadership of our class.

Jacob Smith and I are in full agreement that the “careerists and grifters who cling to the Democratic Party….will not be any more prepared for bold political action in 2021 than they are in 2020”. That the corporate Democrat forces will never be ready for a break is obvious. Less obviously, there are elements within the DSA who are committed to ongoing association with the Democratic Party, despite the party’s rough treatment of our politics and our candidates (including, yes, Bernie, but also Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Talib, and other Democratic Socialists running on the Democratic Party ticket). The careerists will also never be ready for a decisive break with the Democratic Party. However, we are not trying to recruit any of these careerists or grifters.

Biden is a weak candidate who will likely lose to Trump. Should Biden win because of Trump’s bungling of the current health crisis, his presidency will not even attempt to deliver Medicare For All, will not empower our unions, and will not significantly improve the lives of most workers. This will create big openings for socialists to bring together a new party. In the event of Trump winning reelection, there will be a crisis among Democrats and Independents in which many will seek alternatives.

This is why a serious, organized, and not rushed effort through a series of conferences must take place. Those people will seek answers and we must spend the next several months finding them and inspiring them with the hope of a new party which breaks away from the corporate shackles of the Democratic Party and puts forward a platform that, like Bernie's, is broadly popular and unapologetically worker-oriented. Before the 2020 election, support for a third party will be limited due to the feeling of the large majority of progressive workers who view defeating Trump by supporting Biden as the top priority. Under these conditions, I think the strategy of the Mimi Harris petition makes much more sense: let’s use 2020 to wage a campaign to build support in DSA and among left-wing Sanders supporters for forming our own party in 2021.

Our petition is just the beginning, a way to promote discussions like this one in order to convince DSA members, labor activists, community organizers, and the broad, diverse left to rally around a new party. The DSA is not merely one of many actors in this effort; it is central to the question. We are already working now to win people, and our petition is a part of that effort. I hope more on the left will weigh in on this discussion because that can only work to win people over to the need for a new party.

Bobby Lambertz is a member of Seattle DSA and an Assembly Representative in the Renton Education Association.