Socialist Uprising in the Democratic Party?
The Bernie grassroots revolt is the potential outline of a new party being built in the shell of the old Democratic Party.
In the debate about whether DSA should endorse Bernie Sanders, Dan La Botz, a long-standing, committed socialist activist, stresses that: “Sanders 2020 poses the question of political subordination to a capitalist party or political independence.” He also writes that Bernie’s campaign “threatens to lead DSA deep into the Democratic Party,” a party whose “role in American society—as the lesser of two evils—is to periodically reform the political and economic system just enough so that it can incorporate and absorb those who begin to turn away from capitalism.”
The Democratic Party is a capitalist party fundamentally hostile to the interests of working people and the left. For working people to articulate a program based on their interests and to take power to re-organize society, workers must have their own political party which is 100% accountable to them.
On this point, we are in full agreement with Dan. However, how do we engage with and assist people who want to fight for a fundamental change, but unlike Dan and us, believe that the Democratic Party can be used to pursue our interests?
A Living Contradiction
The contradiction of the political moment we are in is captured by the fact that we are seeing a historic upsurge in support for socialism, yet it is being expressed inside the Democratic Party, a party as hostile to socialism at its core as the Republican Party. This peculiar historical twist is a result of the lack of a mass left political party in the US that could give voice to the growing opposition to big business and the desire for political representation for the 99%. Under these conditions this progressive sentiment is expressed through Sanders and the new wave of left Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). This is a step forward given the concrete conditions of the US, although the politics of Sanders, AOC, and the other new left Democrats have populist and reformist limitations.
There is not yet a clear conscious understanding among Sanders’ base, including even its left wing, about the fundamentally capitalist character of the Democratic Party and the need to build a distinctly working-class party. At this stage there is a deep anger at the establishment politicians who dominate the Democratic Party, combined with hopes that the Democratic Party can be transformed into a progressive populist party.
We Base Ourselves on Reality, Not Schemas
This process, where this new socialist sentiment is finding expression through the Democratic Party, may not match the schema of how many Marxists expected events to unfold, nor how we believe they “should” unfold. But nevertheless it is how events are unfolding!
For socialists to stand aside from this real process and counterpose to it general Marxist truths would be a serious mistake. Marxist theory is a guide to action to change the world, not a dogma that we demand the world conforms to.
Marx spelled out this method: “We do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it!… We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”
It is in this spirit that socialists should approach the Sanders campaign.
Our task is to join the real struggle that is developing in the Bernie campaign, which is activating the actual left wing of the US working class. We also need to spread support for socialist politics by drawing on the concrete experiences of the Bernie campaign to put forward the policies that we believe will be required to win—the building of a mass political party that is 100% on the side of the working class that will carry out a fundamental restructuring of society.
Such a mass consciousness can only develop out of the actual experiences of millions fighting to elect Sanders and seeing for themselves how the Democratic Party and the capitalist class keep sabotaging our political revolution.
This stems from the objective reality that there is a fundamental contradiction running through the Democratic Party today. The Sanders campaign will highlight the question again and again: In whose interests will the conflict in the Democratic party be resolved—the left wing giving voice to the working class, or the establishment wing representing the billionaire class?
There are big dangers that come with Sanders running within the Democratic Party. One is Sanders being defeated in the primaries and then using his authority to provide a left prop for the establishment Democratic candidate. Another major danger is that the huge energy gathered around Bernie dissipates after the electoral campaign is over. But this underlines all the more the importance of DSA fighting for Sanders volunteers to get organized independently.
Building a Mass Organization
As Sanders consistently raises, the only way he will be able to overcome the obstacles that the Democratic establishment will throw in his way is if millions of working people get actively involved and fight. To win the election, Sanders will need an unprecedented grassroots uprising to reach voters and respond to the corporate media’s propaganda.
Our DSA campaign can champion the idea that these millions of Sanders volunteers should come together in their own organization with democratic membership structures. An active member-run organization of Sanders volunteers, funded by its own members, would revolutionize Bernie’s campaign. It could have chapters in every part of the country meeting monthly to discuss events and work out their views in response to the constant distortion and smears by the capitalist media.
Each chapter could actively campaign in their communities, organize door-knocking, and help build related social movements. DSA chapters can host community meetings and occupy the offices of politicians who oppose Sanders’ bold policies like Medicare for All and a credit card interest cap. Socialists can build Labor for Bernie and take on union leaders who cover up for Wall Street Democrats.
All of this is possible without having to wait for the official Sanders campaign to show up in each state as the primary election date nears.
A mass organization of this character should not be limited to just volunteering for Bernie in this one election cycle. With a longer term vision, it could use the platform of the election to systematically build up its membership to be able to continue fighting on different fronts long after this race—building real power from below.
If Bernie is elected president, he will only be able to carry out his program on the basis of a massive movement of working people to overcome the all-out opposition of the ruling class. We will need genuine left-wing representatives in Congress and state and local offices to also fight for a political revolution against the billionaire class. Otherwise Bernie would be isolated, facing constant sabotage from Congress and the ruling class.
Of course, genuine left-wing representatives will not be handed to us by the establishment of the Democratic Party. Instead, the millions who are getting involved in Sanders’ campaign are the force that can achieve this. But to realize this potential and not allow it to slip away, we need to be organized in a mass membership organization throughout the country and run candidates from within our own ranks who are accountable to the working class.
Unfortunately this is not the current conception of the Sanders campaign. Although Our Revolution has a longer term vision, it currently lacks the necessary structures for activists to join and fully take democratic ownership of the organization.
But our DSA campaign can raise this idea and build support for it. We should campaign for Bernie to form such an organization, or call on Our Revolution to develop real membership and democratic structures so it could play such a role.
Build DSA into a Mass Socialist Party
If Sanders and Our Revolution are unwilling to take this step, we can offer DSA as an organization for all those activists who agree that there needs to be a democratic membership organization of the left. There will be the space for DSA to grow into a small mass party of around 150,000 members in this coming battle. However, if Sanders and Our Revolution were to adopt this approach, they could build a significantly larger organization than DSA.
What is this, if not the de facto beginning of a new political party independent from big business? It is true that such a new party would be built on the terrain of the Democratic Party—a party of US capitalism. But that is where the fight is unfolding and where millions of workers and young people are gathering and looking for a political alternative to corporate politics.
DSA can play a critical role in making sure that, out of this battle, the socialist movement emerges strengthened, and that the idea of independent working-class politics is popularized among Sanders’ left-wing base. With this approach DSA can double or triple in size. This would represent a qualitative change in the size and weight of DSA that would, in essence, mark the beginnings of a mass socialist party.
A socialist force of this size could have a substantial impact within social struggles. It would allow the new socialist movement to have a common framework to work together in, share lessons of different struggles, and test out different ideas. Such a socialist party would still be far from the mass working-class force needed to decisively challenge the power of the capitalist class both in terms of its size and program. Nonetheless, by providing an arena for discussion and debate, a new socialist party would play a critical role for the movement to collectively learn and politically develop at a faster pace.
We are living in incredibly exciting, powerful times. Many things that seem far away are much closer than they appear, but only if we make use of these opportunities. DSA does not have control over whether people get activated through elections or mass movements in the streets. We don’t yet have control over whether Bernie runs as a Democrat or an independent. But we can have an impact on the development of the left wing of the Sanders campaign. To fully seize this opportunity, however, will require DSA to develop a conscious understanding of the opening that exists, and the political confidence to take the lead in building a socialist party that can influence US politics.