This article was written by the Socialist Alternative Executive Committee. Socialist Alternative is the US Section of the ISA.
On June 5, activist and professor Cornel West declared an independent left challenge for the US presidency in 2024. His announcement has already drawn widespread media coverage and his campaign launch video has been viewed 19 million times.
In a presidential race that up until last week appeared to be headed toward a one-on-one rematch of the deeply unpopular President Biden against the dangerous right-wing Donald Trump, West’s candidacy has the potential to offer a sorely needed left alternative for working people and the oppressed. It comes in the midst of simmering anger of workers and young people at the political establishment of both major parties in an era of social crisis, war, and deep malaise of global capitalism. The efforts of the Democratic establishment to ram corporate neoliberal Biden down the throats of working people, without so much as a primary debate, only add further fuel to the fire.
With runaway inflation continuing, people being kicked off government programs, toxic air from wildfires, and right-wing attacks on trans people and abortion rights, the working class needs to get organized. The corporate-controlled Democratic Party won’t save us from any of these threats. Under Biden’s watch, immigrants continue to be brutalized at the Southern border, dangerous gas pipelines continue to be built, and police budgets continue to balloon. The right-wing grows because the Democrats are not a genuine alternative option for working-class people. They are a billionaire-backed party that will never fight for us. We need to break the cycle of “lesser evilism” that’s left us with climate catastrophe, perpetual wars, and deep inequalities.
The billionaires have two parties, and working people need one of our own! In Presidential election years, more people pay attention to politics, and it’s crucial to have an independent left candidate. In this context, socialists can use elections to argue for mass movements that can change society and connect this to the need for independent electoral action as a step towards a mass working-class party.
Sanders And West
Like Bernie Sanders did in 2016 and 2020, Cornel West is campaigning on key issues facing working people — calling for Medicare for All, cancellation of all student debt, and guaranteed quality education and housing. A strong independent campaign on working-class issues like these, led by a compelling and genuine left candidate like West, could galvanize millions of working people and youth.
But to succeed, the campaign will need to rise to the serious challenges facing it, to consciously build mass grassroots participation, and to stand firm against the brutal attacks it will face from the Democratic establishment and corporate media. The campaign will need to throw itself into the most important struggles of today, including the ongoing labor battles across the country and the fightback of young people against attacks on trans rights. This is something Sanders’ campaigns unfortunately did only in a very limited way.
Like Sanders, West identifies as a “democratic socialist” (a point we think he should be much more public about). Unlike Sanders, West has correctly chosen to make a break with the Democratic Party through this independent candidacy, and is pledging to run all the way through to the general election.
While we supported and campaigned for Sanders in both 2016 and 2020, we argued at the time that he was making a fundamental mistake by running within the Democratic primary and that it would have real consequences in misdirecting working people into this pro-capitalist party of the bosses. We also emphasized that the Democratic leadership would not allow him to win and would use every weapon at their disposal to block him. Unfortunately, we were proven right and both of his campaigns were shut down by the (un)Democratic Party leadership long before the general election. Sadly, Sanders’ capitulation to that leadership has only grown more pronounced since then. The loyalty of Sanders and the “Squad” to the Democratic Party has been used in service of vicious attacks on workers, including the blocking of the railroad workers’ strike, and it has profoundly undercut the ability to organize movements of working people, squandering the momentum Bernie generated with his campaign’s “political revolution against the billionaire class.”
West’s decision to run independent is crucial, and has the potential to be a more serious threat to the billionaire class than Sanders’ was. The Democratic establishment is well aware of this fact, and they are already mobilizing attacks against Cornel West’s campaign.
Democrats Attack West
The Nation ran an article originally titled “Cornel West Has No Business Running for President” (the highly insulting title was later amended) that makes a typical “spoiler” argument that a vote for West will be a vote for Trump or DeSantis. This same argument is used against virtually every independent working-class candidate. If accepted, there would never be a time for working people to fight for genuine representation in office, effectively leaving the political terrain under American capitalism unchallenged and under the control of the billionaires. We should be clear, the Democratic establishment is deeply afraid of the working-class challenge West represents, and they want his campaign in the Democratic primary so they can stomp it out the same way they did with Sanders.
Another kind of attack—ostensibly from the left—was featured in an MSNBC article by Ja’han Jones two days after West’s launch, titled “Cornel West’s ‘leftist’ presidential bid has right-wing DNA.” The article presents a laundry list of some of West’s interactions with right-wing figures, and dishonestly calls into question the left-wing character of West’s campaign on behalf of the Democratic establishment. This is also directly out of the Democratic establishment playbook, and the fact it was deployed so rapidly shows how desperately they want him to drop his challenge to the flailing Biden.
DSA’s Jacobin magazine is also attacking Cornel West for running as an independent, saying that voters won’t “notice” him, and that instead he should challenge Biden in the Democratic Primary to reach “the largest audience that’s realistically available to him.” In reality, Cornel West has already gotten enormous media attention just one week into his campaign, and the Democrats have already rigged their primary, including making it crystal clear there will be no primary debates. The truth is the opposite to Jacobin’s claim: the vast majority of working people pay most attention to general elections (not primaries), and by running independent, West is positioned to reach far more people in November 2024.
These attacks are just getting started, and they will only grow in number and ferocity as the campaign’s momentum develops.
Fighting The Right
The present political moment also poses some serious foreign policy challenges that Bernie’s campaign did not have to grapple with. In particular, there is the question of the war underway in Ukraine, sparked by Russian imperialism’s brutal invasion, but also driven by US imperialism and its strategic interests. While we totally condemn Putin’s invasion, we must also be clear that Western imperialism is not acting out of solidarity with Ukrainian working people, and this war is not in the interests of the working class anywhere. The war, if it continues, will kill many thousands more Ukrainian and Russian workers and threatens to spark wider war and devastation as the wider conflict between US and Chinese imperialism ramps up, with the possibility of war over Taiwan. It is no longer possible to skirt difficult international questions, as Bernie Sanders mostly did in both his 2016 and 2020 campaigns. The only force that can end the war in Ukraine is working class solidarity and a global anti-imperialist working class-centred antiwar movement opposing the brutality of both Russian and US imperialism.
Cornel West takes a broadly principled position on the war, sharply criticizing Putin and Russian imperialism for the invasion while clearly rejecting the idea that US imperialism is acting to “defend democracy” or that its strategic and profit-driven aims can be supported. In his platform, West correctly calls for an end to the war and for NATO to be disbanded.
Notably, prior to West’s entry, Donald Trump was posing as the “antiwar” candidate in the race, which is both disingenuous and deeply dangerous because it could lead to many working people voting for a right-wing candidate out of the desire to reject the war. One reason West’s challenge to this is so important because he does what Trump never would, which is call for the military budget to be cut and reallocated to fund essential social services.
West has also declared his intention to campaign strongly for those who have voted for Trump in the past: “I’m going to Trump country,” he has noted in several interviews. This is important, because to defeat the right wing it is essential to reach out on a clear working-class platform to those millions of independents and Republicans (and even some who generally vote Democrat) who are angry at the political establishment and might otherwise be taken in by con men like Trump.
West originally launched his candidacy with the People’s Party, a formation established in the wake of Sanders’ 2016 campaign; but it has been plagued by deep internal dysfunction, including very serious charges of sexual harassment against founder Nick Brana. The People’s Party, along with some others, took the wrong approach of trying to “unite the left and the right” with a “rage against the war machine” rally in February with right-wing groups. The way to get an ear of Trump-supporting workers isn’t by uniting with tiny reactionary groups; instead, we need to be firm with a working-class program that opposes imperialist war, defends all oppressed people, and appeals to the class interests of people drawn to right populism.
Fortunately, Cornel West has since changed course and announced he will be seeking the Green Party nomination instead. This came in the wake of Chris Hedges’ remarks at an event organized by Workers Strike Back in New York City with Kshama Sawant, where Hedges said publicly that he was organizing for West to meet with the Green Party.
While the Greens have their own real weaknesses, and have never sufficiently based themselves on building social movements or working-class struggle, they have the major advantage of ballot access in a large majority of states. We fully agree with West’s decision and think it removes a key obstacle from this campaign, though it does not itself resolve the need for a new mass left party for working people in the US. There are a number of historical reasons for the lack of such a party, but Bernie Sanders also bears responsibility for his fundamental failures in 2016 and 2020 to launch one and continue his campaigns on an independent basis, as Socialist Alternative urged at the time.
The West campaign’s mistake with the People’s Party shows the need to build a strong grassroots campaign and a campaign team that can take on the many complex issues that will face this serious challenge to the US ruling class. Among them will be ferocious pressures to capitulate to Biden and the Democrats, including for West to bow out in the final months of the election. This must be firmly rejected.
The Way Forward
We also think West should more consistently emphasize the key points of his platform that affect the day-to-day lives of working-class people. This kind of consistency was perhaps the single greatest strength of Sanders’ flawed campaigns: anyone who attended a rally or followed Sanders’ campaign in any way could not escape his demands for Medicare for All, a $15 an hour federal minimum wage, and free college education. There is the danger, especially in the context of brutal attacks by the corporate media, that if West’s working class demands are not kept front-and-center, his campaign will not be as effective in mobilizing millions of people to get active in the way needed.
This is also a central part of the success of Socialist Alternative City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. Kshama was first elected in 2013 on the basis of building a grassroots campaign around the demands of a $15 minimum wage (at the time dismissed as “utopian” and impossible), taxing the rich and big business, and rent control. These demands were relentlessly reinforced in our messaging, instead of “wide-ranging discussions” or personal narratives that generally typify most campaigns. Since then, Kshama won the historic $15 minimum wage in Seattle, the Amazon Tax on Seattle’s wealthiest businesses, and three more elections despite the fierce opposition of Amazon and the Democratic establishment. This is because Kshama and Socialist Alternative have used the position as an organizing hub for movements to relentlessly fight for clear working-class demands.
Another key to our success in Seattle is that, like Sanders, we have built energetic grassroots campaigns with armies of volunteers who have been mobilized by our fighting, working-class program. To succeed, West will need to do the same.
There is a huge hunger and need for such an example nationally, and Cornel West’s campaign has the potential to tap into that on a far broader scale. Socialist Alternative will be having a democratic discussion in the coming weeks in our organization about taking up the fight for Cornel West’s campaign, including the crucial struggle for ballot access. We will make the case within Workers Strike Back to do the same, and to help build the mass movement desperately needed.
Socialists should aim to connect independent left electoral politics to developing movements like the ones to unionize workplaces and stop the Republican attacks on women, trans people, and workers’ rights. We need a new workers’ party that fights not just in elections, but also in the workplaces, communities, campuses, and streets where we can build struggles that win victories against the injustices of capitalism. That goal should be reflected in how we fight against the two parties of big business in elections.
Around the nation and globally, working-class and young people are searching for a way to fight back. Unfortunately, at present the huge vacuum of leadership and lull in social struggle have left many ordinary people demobilized. A strong independent Cornel West campaign has the potential to help kick off a new wave of mass struggle and be a political earthquake in US politics.