Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential fight has come to an end. His campaign was a critical part of the re-emergence of anti-capitalist politics, albeit in a limited form, on the American mainstream political scene. In large measure due to the machinations of the DNC, Sanders’ departure means Americans will now have to choose between Biden, consistent ally to business and corporate interests, author of the 1994 crime bill, supporter of the Iraq War and Patriot Act, and accused sexual abuser, versus the incumbent Donald Trump, the clownish far-right billionaire populist who has on occasion given vocal support to fascists.
Sanders’ departure comes at a moment when his policies are becoming more important, and more accepted, than ever. Even the New York Times, generous in victory, published an opinion piece to this effect. Medicare for All is becoming an obvious necessity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, as millions of Americans lose their health insurance due to the insanity of having it tied to their employment status. A Green New Deal would put millions of Americans back to work while making desperately needed progress on the climate emergency. With the possibility of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression looming on the horizon, working people would be in a better position under a president that sees the importance of unions, uses the state to regulate healthcare, and carries out the other policy promises that the Sanders campaign made. Instead we will have a race between the stubborn and intransigent neoliberalism-in-decay of Biden and Trump.
However, it is interesting to note that while a majority of Democratic voters agreed with policies like Medicare for All, they were not convinced Sanders could get it accomplished. A poll of Democratic primary voters in Texas found a more favorable view of “socialism” than of “capitalism,” but a majority still voted for the uninspiring Biden. This illustrates the limits of a campaign for socialism contained within the electoral arena. Not only would workers’ struggle be necessary to win and enforce Sanders’ policies through a recalcitrant Congress and state bureaucracy, but mass movements and decisive working class victories are necessary to build the confidence that makes even social democratic electoral victories possible.
The development of class consciousness and class struggle does not proceed magically. It is pure idealism to think that the American left could go from the demoralizing defeats of the early-90s to the development of the level of class struggle we urgently need without taking all the requisite steps in-between. The development of class consciousness is uneven, sometimes moving fast, at other times slow. We saw the way struggle can spread quickly during the teachers’ strikes of 2018-19, particularly in red states, which a few years earlier would not have seemed possible. These kinds of developments help break the spell which keeps us from realizing that the world desperately needs changing, that it can be changed, and that we have the power to change it.
The Sanders campaign has been a key link in the development of this awareness, building upon the gains of the anti-capitalist movement that emerged in the aftermath of the anti-World Trade Organization demonstration in Seattle in 1999, the resistance to the Iraq War, the impact of the 2008 financial crisis, the Occupy movement, the election of Donald Trump and the flowering of the DSA. Sanders gave to millions the awareness that they could change the world for the better and, as a name for this aspiration, he provided the word “socialism.” The importance of this contribution cannot be overstated. But it did not start with Bernie, and it will have to continue beyond Bernie.
For all of this though, his campaign had some significant blemishes which all leftists should assess honestly in the wake of Sanders’ departure. Since it did not build a movement outside electoral campaigns, it failed to recognize that socialism cannot be built from the top-down through elections. The capitalist state will do everything, including resorting to fascism, before it allows that to happen. Victories, even social democratic ones, must come from below, from the bottom up, from the pressure and activity of the working class.
It is also disappointing that Sanders had agreed in advance to support the Democratic nominee, whoever that person may be. His decision to run inside the Democratic party may have given him mainstream legitimacy, but it came at the expense of building working class independence from that capitalist party which, since the 1960s, has been the “graveyard of social movements.”
Sanders’ statements on US military and foreign policy stood head and shoulders above the other Democratic candidates, but were far from socialist internationalism. Mike Davis has a point when he says the domestic focus of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal “veers close to a left version of America Firstism.”
Similarly, Sanders’ record on US imperialism is mixed. While he has been more critical of the Netanyahu government in Israel, he supports the existence of the Israeli state and does not support the BDS movement. Rhetorically, he has rightly condemned US intervention in South America, from the coup in Chile to the Salvadorian death squads to the recent Bolivian coup. But, while he claims anti-imperialist credentials due to his voting against the war in Iraq in 2003, his vote effectively became a “yes” since he continually voted to fund it for years thereafter. He has voted time and again for US intervention around the world, in Kosovo, Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria. While he may have had intentions of putting a “more human” face upon it, Sanders has never had any intention of changing the fundamentals of US imperialism. It is significant that when his vote for the bombing of Kosovo in 1999 triggered an occupation of his office in Burlington, he had the occupiers arrested. If this is how Sanders reacts to small protests against US imperialism, it seems likely that he would actively constrain other areas of working-class protest and activity, especially those kinds that have the potential to challenge capitalism and fundamentally change the system if he had become president.
For millions of Americans, the news of Sanders’ departure triggered feelings of overwhelming disappointment. But this is not a moment for despair. This is a moment for continuing the struggle for socialism. The Sanders campaign mobilized an impressive grassroots movement. This energy and dedication cannot end with Sanders’ presidential run, it can and should be channelled into movements outside the electoral world. Coronavirus and the accompanying economic crisis have further revealed the contradictions at the heart of our society. Maintaining health and safety for millions will require the material implementation of the socialist consciousness which the Sanders’ campaign helped foster. This struggle requires more than going to the ballot-box once a year. It means expanded workplace struggles, building social movements, and taking to the streets.