In a previous article in the Red Vine, I overviewed a probable trajectory of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, noting that, at least as the campaign and the candidate are concerned, any upsurge for the (broadly-defined) left will likely be limited. It should be the case that the Sanders campaign will provide some opportunities for communists to engage with people about what socialist and independent working class politics actually entails, but expecting such a shift in political consciousness to happen quickly and within the Sanders campaign is incredibly unlikely. Nevertheless, Sanders’ supporters are at least partially right to say that his campaign is – at least in some ways – something which has not been seen to the US political landscape in quite some time, and there is a chance for the advancement of explicitly socialist politics at this stage, even if the Sanders campaign itself will ultimately be a dead-end.
One the one hand, this is a sentiment shared by a number of other groups on the left. A debate (or at least an exchange of views) between the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Alternative – respectively one of the largest and one of the highest profile self-described revolutionary socialist groups in the US – suggests shades of agreement in terms of what happens after the Sanders campaign inevitably winds up. Both groups acknowledge that the Sanders campaign will no doubt excite a number of people who have been politicized in the previous few years, note that an “independent political alternative” is needed, and consider it necessary to engage with Sanders supporters to argue for such an alternative.1 The main difference is in terms of degrees; the ISO presents a more skeptical view of Sanders’ campaign, and argues that socialists need to argue against the electoral trap of working within the Democratic Party and keep people “in the streets” (where ultimate power presumably lies…)
Socialist Alternative, on the other hand, presents a much more positive view of the Sanders campaign, implicitly arguing in favor of Sanders as a political standard bearer by supporting the idea that Sanders continue his campaign after the Democratic primaries, though noting that “movements” should continue even if Sanders doesn’t run as an independent.
On the other hand, very little is said about what any sort of political alternative should be aiming for. This is somewhat understandable given the fairly limited scope of the statements issued as part of the debate, but even when taken together with other articles each organization has written on the Sanders campaign and political strategy generally, the broader picture is still left vague, and rests primarily on what it seen as the next step.
The question of what type of political party is ultimately needed and what that party would do if it managed to win political power is largely left unsaid, and in terms of an organized political alternative, this vagueness tends to lead to the largest already-existing alternative to the Democrats – the Green Party. As a result, whether they support this or not, they fall into supporting an organization that, while providing an opposition voice to the Democrats, does not provide an opposition voice to capitalism and the American state generally, and as such fall vastly short of what a socialist or communist party would hopefully seek to achieve.
This weakness actually present itself in a similar way as the “left-wing of the possible” arguments arguments for social reform presented by more moderate sections of the left due to the Green Party’s position as a “non-systemic opposition” party – one which opposes the main parties in power from the left, but doesn’t fundamentally oppose the system that those parties uphold or the state that both parties operate in.
As a result, even socialist campaigns tend to focus overwhelmingly on issues like wages, rent control, and other economic reforms – certainly positive for improving the condition of working class life, but there is no explicit direction from these reform proposals to a program which could at least pose the question of the working class taking over society. Even when such concepts are alluded to – such as in vague calls for “revolution” which can easily fit for a gamut of candidates from Bernie Sanders to Jill Stein to Peta Lindsey – they serve as little more than cheering slogans as opposed to a clear proposal for working class political power.
So, while an alternative does need to be constructed, it also needs to be counterposed to the other alternatives that currently exist. In particular, rather than fighting for a better government, socialists need to build a better opposition that, while putting forth concrete proposals of what it would do if and when it formed a government, stands in resolute contrast to all existing parties of reform. True, such an opposition movement needs to be as broad based as possible, involving all sorts of organizations and campaigns, but without a sense of direction and goals, adaptation towards the status quo will happen all the more quickly. It won’t be an easy argument to win, but it will be necessary.
1. The statements of each organization can be accessed, with differing introductions via the ISO’s Socialist Worker at http://socialistworker.org/2015/05/20/what-should-the-left-say-about-sanders or the website of Socialist Alternative’s eponymous paper at http://www.socialistalternative.org/2015/05/20/debate-what-should-left-say/