Bernie Sanders’ Campaign: A Step Forward

Against the Current No. 4-5, September-December 1986

Dianne Feeley & David Finkel

BERNIE SANDERS’ independent socialist campaign for governor of Vermont has sparked interest and controversy on the left. We believe that this campaign can be an important step toward mass-based independent radical political action in this country.

The Sanders campaign is unusual in the United States today: an openly socialist campaign for high public office which is not a purely symbolic gesture. It is practical and aiming to win. This is precisely why the campaign has been sharply attacked by the editors of In These Times as “divisive” of the left.

While they support a socialist alternative sometime, somewhere, someday, the ITT editors like many on the left fear that Sanders’ campaign will attract enough votes to possibly tip the election into the state legislature where the Republicans hold sway. Others counsel that Sanders’ campaign was premature; it would be better to wait until Governor Kunin, a “liberal” governor had been in office longer and had a better chance to discredit herself.

As Sanders himself noted, all of these reasons could be used as a justification for not running four, eight, twelve, or eighty years from now.

From our perspective, it is good that progressives have to choose between a mainstream liberal Democrat and a viable independent socialist candidate. There will never be a break from the Democratic Party unless a practical political alternative is offered.

Sanders’ record as mayor of Burlington has also been attacked by left critics. In one letter to the editor published in the Guardian, he was vilified as a sell-out socialist who promotes big business development in Burlington. And, in fact, he hasn’t been completely consistent in his opposition to the Democratic Party, having campaigned for Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential elections.

However, what should matter for the left are not the fine points of whether Bernie Sanders has been 100 % correct on every detail of every question, but a much more fundamental set of issues regarding the role of socialists in political life.

The Challenge Facing Us

The American left in recent times has little association with electoral victories. Bernie Sanders’ experience as three-time mayor of a small-to-medium sized city can tell us an enormous amount about what we can expect from elections, and what we cannot expect.

Sanders’ several victories tell us is that it is possible to run and win. If it is possible in Burlington, it is possible in at least some other places in the U.S. If that is true, what is there about Sanders’ Progressive Coalition that proved able to tap this rare but not unique sentiment, while other left efforts have failed?

We think that by and large American socialists have done a lot of electoral work, but very little of what they have done since the Debsian Socialist Party has been effective work.

A majority of the left has been buried as invisible background drudges promoting liberals in the main­ stream Democratic Party, helping thereby to convince others that everything outside of the capitalist mainstream is lunatic fringe.

At the other extreme, small-party groups have run sectarian campaigns. These usually made a principle of refusing to work with any other organization on the left, or formulating a platform divorced from reality.

The actual aim of such efforts is rarely to build a socialist presence in American politics. The primary goal is to recruit a handful of members to the group.

The relative powerlessness of office holding is part of the design of capitalism. The political state has very limited rights to interfere with private property that sanctified mound of the nation’s treasure controlled every year by fewer and fewer individuals.

The experience of Mitterrand in France tells us all too bitterly that even socialist office holding on a grand scale easily ends up as much hostage to the power of capital as the small potatoes of American reform Democrats.

Understanding this truth does not make a socialist in office any more powerful or any better able to avoid the painful and unpleasant choices that confront someone trying to pay a city’s bills without enough money coming in. From the earliest and smallest trust that is placed in the revolutionary left by the workers of some city or neighborhood we must simultaneously carry out elective responsibilities and work to build counterinstitutions of working-class power.

For An Independent Movement

The biggest objective weakness of Sanders’ campaign is that it is not linked to an ongoing independent political party or movement. This major difficulty, however, is clearly not the fault of Bernie Sanders but of the failures of the U.S. left.

Sanders is an outspoken opponent [the one exception already noted] of the Democratic Party. He also has a reputation of fusing the discussion of local issues with issues of national and international importance.

He has been elected mayor of Burlington three times while having supported the Palestinians’ right to their homeland and having solidarized himself with the Nicaraguan revolution. These positions are to the left of the Rainbow Coalition, DSA, and other left forces which work in the Democratic Party.

The importance of Sanders’ positions on these issues goes beyond their own intrinsic importance. It is these questions–support for Nicaragua and to an even greater degree, Palestine–which virtually no Democrat will touch. While House Democrats vote against contra aid, most argue not from any sympathy for the Sandinistas or even Nicaragua’s right of self-determination, but on the grounds that “it doesn’t work” or “the money is inefficiently or corruptly spent.”

When it comes to Palestine, of course, the picture is even worse. The only significant partial exceptions are the most left-wing members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Thus, the Sanders campaign illustrates our argument that political struggle outside the Democratic Party opens possibilities that are completely blocked off inside it. Furthermore, it points to the possibility of a genuine progressive alliance with the more outspoken among the Black leadership.

Clearly, the goals held by the mass base of support for the Rainbow Coalition-although not its leadership, whose perspectives are tied to the Democrats-would be better pursued by a policy of independent political action.

One of Sanders’ most prominent supporters, Ellen David-Friedman, is a member of the Democratic National Committee as well as a leader of the Vermont Rainbow. Yet Sanders makes it clear that his campaign is different from the campaigns of the Rainbow Coalition: his project is to create a popular left alternative to the Democrats, not build a wing of the Democratic Party.

There is no question that, as a political current, supporters of independent political action are vastly outnumbered by opponents or skeptics. The Sanders campaign gives us a first opportunity not just to prophesy about what a future independent political party would look like, but to get involved.

An actual independent candidacy like Sanders’ today makes the path easier for the hundreds of thousands of people who have to break from the Democratic Party if an independent party representing labor, Blacks, Latinos, women, and gays is ever to be built in the United States. The left should welcome that opportunity.

September-December 1986, ATC 4-5

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