By Kshama Sawant (Socialist Alternative – ISA in the USA)
On Wednesday, Bernie Sanders announced that he was suspending his campaign for the presidency, effectively bringing it to an end. He was 300 delegates behind Biden and had a very difficult path to winning the nomination, but pulling out at this point has left millions of Sanders’ supporters deeply disappointed. They understand, as we in Socialist Alternative have argued, that this primary, like that in 2016, has effectively been stolen by the Democratic Party’s corporate establishment.
Sanders has decided to quit at a time of unprecedented crisis facing working people when the need for socialist change has never been more clear. The coronavirus epidemic has fully exposed the massive inequality in American society and the catastrophic effects of decades of attacks on working people’s hard won gains and cuts to social services including healthcare.
On top of the devastation caused by coronavirus in many working class communities, especially among immigrant workers in New York City and in black working class communities in many cities, we have the new reality of mass unemployment on a scale which can only be compared to the Great Depression. By the end of April, 50 million will have lost their jobs, 35 million will have lost their employer-provided health benefits and tens of millions will be choosing between paying the rent and buying food for their families.
This crisis shows, in an almost unprecedented way, the complete bankruptcy of the capitalist system.
The Disaster that Is Joe Biden
The presumptive Democratic nominee is now Joe Biden, a loyal servant of Wall Street for many decades who has supported cutting Social Security and Medicaid; was a leading proponent of the policies that created mass incarceration; led the charge in the U.S. Senate against Anita Hill who testified to Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas’ vile sexual harassment; and vigorously supported the Iraq War. Biden’s mental faculties are also clearly not what they were. He has been essentially absent during the coronavirus crisis. This has led to speculation that the establishment might try to switch him for someone else later this year. But any such move risks even further discrediting the leadership of the Democratic Party whose lack of authority cannot be overstated.
It is reflective of the establishment’s desperation to stop Sanders after the momentum he gained by winning the first three primaries that they coalesced around Biden. They fully recognized his desperate weakness as a candidate and spent months trying to find a different candidate to rally around without success. But while they managed to block Bernie they have only delayed a reckoning. Even if Biden somehow defeats Trump he will have to deal with a crisis comparable to the Great Depression which will completely expose the inadequacy of the Democratic leadership and fuel the desire of millions to create a new working class party.
But it was precisely the fear of a second term of Trump, the most reactionary president in decades, that opened the door for the establishment to engage in a campaign of mass manipulation after the South Carolina primary. The irony is that while many who supported Biden bought into the argument that Sanders would be “too radical” a candidate to beat Trump, they also supported key parts of Sanders platform. In the first 20 state primaries, exit polls showed a majority supported Medicare for All.
Despite all this and despite poll after poll showing Sanders beating Trump, Bernie has accepted defeat and made it clear that he will support Biden. The Sanders team has been reduced to hoping to extract verbal “concessions” from Biden to the progressive agenda. Biden may indeed throw a few crumbs to try to keep millions of progressives, especially young people, from staying home this November. But it would be frankly delusional to accept any mealy mouthed promises from Biden who, as recently as a couple weeks ago, said he would veto Medicare for All if Congress actually passed it!
We understand why millions are so desperate to get rid of Trump that they would support almost any opponent. But we also know who Joe Biden is and he’s no “friend” of working people, women, black people or immigrants. We won’t support him and neither should Sanders.
Why We Endorsed Bernie Sanders
Socialist Alternative and I endorsed Sanders in November and went all out to win this election. We have no regrets about our stand based on the enormously positive elements of the movement he helped create. Going back to 2016, Sanders electrified millions because of his radical pro-working class platform, his call for a “political revolution against the billionaire class” and his popularization of “democratic socialism.” This time Sanders went further saying billionaires “should not exist,” while talking about a “government of the working class” and declaring that his role as president would be “organizer in chief.” He called for a Green New Deal and even for taking parts of the energy industry into public ownership.
But the key reason we supported Bernie so strongly was the same reason the ruling class feared him. His 2016 campaign helped inspire mass struggle, including the teachers’ revolt in 2018 and 2019 and the beginning of a rebirth of the labor movement in this country. If he had somehow overcome all the obstacles and won the presidency in 2020, the ruling class feared the enormous rise in the confidence and expectations of working people along with the wave of struggle it could create. The Democrats’ corporate donors were clear that they preferred four more years of Trump to Sanders in the White House.
At the same time we have always been frank about Sanders’ limitations and our important differences with him. Going back to 2016 we pointed to the contradictory character of his campaign: on the one hand by refusing all corporate money it pointed to the potential for a new party but at the same time it was also dragging people back towards the Democrats. In 2018 we saw a further turn of many on the left towards the attempt to reform the Democrats, encouraged by the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others as democratic socialists. We also supported this development as it exacerbated the contradictions in the Democratic Party itself which has been a key obstacle in the road of developing a powerful left in the United States since the 1930s.
Furthermore, we have never agreed with Sanders’ explanation of socialism which seems to be a combination of FDR’s New Deal and European social democratic governments. These are examples of trying to save the bankrupt system of capitalism, not getting rid of it. This is a failed project, as is further underscored by the present pandemic and the threat of climate catastrophe.
We have to reiterate that a not unimportant role in blocking Sanders’ pro-working class campaign was played by the leaders of most unions – with honorable exceptions. This unfortunately shows that they fear the class struggle more than the bosses’ attacks on working people. We also must refer to the terrible role played by Elizabeth Warren who failed as the “other progressive” in the race to get behind Bernie when all the outright corporate candidates helped turn the tide for Biden.
In the wake of the Super Tuesday coup and the growing challenges facing his campaign, Sanders did continue to put forward bold proposals to address the emerging dual crisis of the pandemic and economic collapse. He has recently called for paying all workers their full former wages for the duration of this crisis. But while he and AOC raised a number of criticisms of the stimulus bill which contained a staggering bailout for corporate America, they mistakenly voted for it under pressure.
This along with consistently referring to Biden as “my friend” points to a bigger problem. As a number of people on the left have pointed out, a more combative approach with Biden from the start would have benefited Sanders by helping to expose who Biden really is. But more than that, Sanders approach of pulling his punches truly does not work in the new situation we find ourselves in; now is the time to resist the ruling class’ false appeals to “unity,” to call out who is responsible for the catastrophe, and to build a ferocious resistance regardless of the howls of the corporate media.
Millions are asking “what now?” Sanders’ decision to suspend his campaign is undoubtedly a real setback to the left. But it also should be the end of illusions in the left’s ability to transform the Democratic Party. There is a real danger of demoralization but millions are also having their eyes opened. This is forcing many to ask – in a time of tremendous crisis – what type of leadership the working class needs.
When Sanders was clearly heading to defeat in the run-up to the Democratic Convention in 2016 after a rigged primary, we called on him to continue running as an independent. This gained a wide echo and was seen by many as the next logical step. It is possible he could have won a three-way race with Clinton and Trump. A similar call today would not likely gain the same support because of the overriding fear among millions of a Trump re-election. However, the key contribution Sanders could make to the further development of the movement he built in our view is to admit the unviability of reforming the Democratic Party and to help launch the effort to set up a new party.
In the meantime the best activists, seeing the road blocked on the political terrain, will turn to the mass struggles that are developing even in the middle of the lockdown. Already we see frontline workers around the country demanding safety measures and hazard pay. This has included strike action. Workers in clearly non-essential industries have demanded that their workplaces be closed.
With tens of millions unable to pay rent, there is objectively the basis for a nationwide Rent Strike on May 1. We are calling for this to be combined with workplace action around the country, even if of a brief nature, and solidarity action with social distancing in working class neighborhoods. It is through these struggles on May 1 and in the coming months that working class solidarity and consciousness can be built which will help lay the basis for the independent working class challenge to corporate power that is so desperately needed.