This article was first published in Bridge City Militant No. 1, Fall 2015.
The first votes won’t be cast for many months, but the presidential election season is already upon us, and pressure is building on the unions to choose their candidates. Among labor activists and the left, attention is focused on the figure of Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont. Sanders, who sometimes claims to be an “independent” and a “democratic socialist” is running to be nominated as the Democratic candidate for president in 2016. Labor Notes, the voice of “progressive” union bureaucrats who sometimes pose as “troublemakers,” hyped Sanders in a 17 July 2015 article by Dan DiMaggio:
“Sanders’ platform includes a $15-an-hour minimum wage, guaranteed vacations and sick leave, lifting the payroll tax cap on Social Security, and single-payer health care. He’s a vocal opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the latest corporate-friendly trade deal. He rails against income inequality and how the ‘billionaire class’ dominates politics.”
Cheap talk. Class-struggle militants are not “feeling the Bern.” We are anti-Bernie, anti-Hillary, anti-Democrat, anti-Republican, anti-Green. Yes, we’re pretty much against everything that passes for “politics” these days, because it’s all about who will be the CEO of bloody, racist U.S. capitalism, and Bernie is no exception. We will oppose any endorsements or other forms of support by our unions for Sanders or any of the current candidates.
Many critics have pointed out that Bernie Sanders, the nominal “independent” who votes with the Democratic Party caucus in the Senate, has already made it clear that he will support whoever gets the Democratic Party nomination: presumably, Hillary Clinton’s lavishly-financed establishment campiagn. Sanders supporters are certainly chumps for Wall Street’s preferred party: “energizing” the “base” – the workers, poor people, oppressed racial minorities, and women – to vote for the “lesser evil” party of their oppressors. It’s a con game.
But what if he wins the nomination? He is surging in the (mostly meaningless) early polls. Or what if Bernie, under the ardent “pressure” of his fans, does the opposite of what he has repeatedly promised to do, and goes “independent”?
We would still not support him. In the Senate, he sometimes opposes U.S. military policy in words – but votes for war budgets. He voted for the genocidal sanctions against Iraq, that killed millions of innocent civilians and paved the way for the war he “opposed.” He opposed the Orwellian PATRIOT Act – in words – and voted for the USA Freedom Act, which continued massive government spying. His “radical” economic proposals amount to tinkering with the tax code and the anti-labor laws. Even if the millionaires’ Congress goes along with his talk of a $15/hour minimum wage (keep dreaming!) this would be a poverty wage. The rest is standard Democratic Party primary populist bluster about the “middle class.”
American workers should take note: not so long ago, last winter, a very radical-talking capitalist party – SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left – won the national elections in Greece. They were full of tough talk against the bloodthirsty banks that were condemning Greek workers to double-digit unemployment and starvation wages. The mouthpieces of high finance shrieked with terror. And then, SYRIZA imposed worse “austerity” measures on the Greek workers and poor than preceding right-wing governments had ever dared to.
A President Bernie Sanders – a milquetoast moderate compared to the Greek “radicals” – would likewise do what Wall Street will need of him. Wall Street can live with higher taxes: Warren Bufffet and Bill Gates agree. But it can’t live without endless war abroad and racist police-state repression “at home” to guarantee its property and its exploitation of labor. Bernie is not Wall Street’s candidate, but the decisive issue for us is that he seeks to rule on behalf of Wall Street, as a “socialist” who supports private property and demonstrably is willing to make whatever compromise this support requires.
This fundamental problem – the problem of class, as in which class should rule – is obvious when we seriously consider the most burning issue in American politics, the “color line.” And it should be clear that supporting Bernie Sanders, critically or not, will do nothing to end the oppression of black people in this country.
Black Lives Matter activists grabbed the spotlight by crashing Sanders appearances at the Democratic Party “Net Roots Nation” conference in Phoenix, Arizona, and again at a rally in Seattle to celebrate the anniversary of Social Security. The response from Sanders fans ranged from incredulous shock to ugly racist heckling. Oh how dare they! Don’t they realize that Sanders is the lesser-lesser evil? Is the fact that black women and men are being hunted and killed like animals on the streets by the police really a reason to interrupt the circus of Democratic politics-as-usual?
So Sanders appointed a new campaign spokesperson, the black activist Symone Sanders (no relation to the senator), and published a platform for “racial justice” on berniesanders.com. On MSNBC’s August 11 Chris Hayes show, BLM founder Alicia Garza claimed “that interruption really forced Bernie Sanders to have a strong platform on race and racial justice.”
So what is his platform? A laundry list of police training and policy reforms that are already in place in many major cities like New York, Oakland and Baltimore, and do absolutely nothing to stop the legal lynching of black people! Systematic state violence against black people is not just a policy, it is a fundamental feature of American capitalism. More training, different arming, or more black and latino cops and police chiefs, among other pseudo-reforms, have done nothing and will do nothing. Demilitarize the police? Eric Garner was strangled by hand on a busy New York City street in broad daylight, and the “justice system” let his killers walk without charges. On the mass incarceration of blacks, Sanders the “socialist” isn’t against prisons, just private prisons, and isn’t against drug laws, just mandatory minimum sentences. A lot of hot air and precious little substance: that’s a “victory” for the dead-end politics of pressuring the Democratic Party.
Sanders supporters and labor “radicals” in general tend to look back sentimentally to the era of president Franklin Roosevelt, and the segregationist imperialist war chief’s “New Deal.” But the massive labor upsurge that created the modern American labor movement was not created by any legislation, and the key victories of 1934 – Longshore on the West Coast, Teamsters in Minneapolis, and auto workers in Toledo – were victorious because they were willing to struggle independently from and against the labor laws and the Democratic and Republican governments that administered them. The decades-long decline of the labor movement that class-struggle militants seek to reverse is fundamentally the result of the labor leadership’s support for and loyalty to the bosses’ parties and their government.
To revive the labor movement we must break with all the capitalist parties, including the slightly-lesser-evil ones. The greater evil by far is the continued subordination of the unions to their class enemy through the instrument of the Democratic Party.
CSWP stands for class struggle, not illusions in capitalist election games. The unions can only rely on our own forces, the irresistible power of millions of workers, to fight poverty wages, to smash racist oppression, to champion the rights of women, sexual/gender minorities and immigrants. To coordinate this fight we propose a different kind of party, a workers party with a program of class struggle. ■