Socialist Kshama Sawant’s Support for Bernie Sanders Criticized

As the only public official who’s a socialist, what Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant says and does matters. That’s why her most open support yet for liberal Democrat Bernie Sanders is provoking criticism, including within her own group, Socialist Alternative. But Sawant’s support doesn’t come in a vacuum; it is connected to several other issues, and it’s important to understand these too. Here, Sean Greaves, a member of Socialist Alternative, posts his critique, which was written several weeks ago:

Liberal Democrat Bernie Sanders. He supports drone warfare, Israel and the continued political monopoly of the Republicrats. It is a huge mistake for socialist Kshama Sawant to support him.

Liberal Democrat Bernie Sanders. He supports drone warfare, Israel and the continued political monopoly of the Republicrats. It is a huge mistake for socialist Kshama Sawant to support him.

Though Socialist Alternative has been working tirelessly for comrade Sawant’s re-election, we have been no less active in another electoral campaign – that of liberal Democrat Bernie Sanders. Despite the fact that SA has not officially endorsed Sanders and has called on him to run independently (which he has stated emphatically he will not do) the leadership has, in practice, encouraged a non-critical approach toward Sanders’ program. As one of comrade Sawant’s leading campaign persons told a public meeting in Oakland on Sept 20, and as was repeated by a leading member of the Oakland branch “we do not have to criticize Sanders”. Indeed, our party’s (literature) tables, articles and leading comrades’ interactions with Sanders supporters are all geared toward giving the impression that the difference between ourselves and the left-liberal amount to little more than a tactical difference over the utility of the Democratic party. 

Leading comrades have argued that it is better to uncritically echo Sanders’ “calls” than expose the limits of his white progressivism. If we must be distinct from him, better to frame it as “our differences” rather than urge his supporters to see that no Democrat can deliver the goods and that there is an insurmountable gulf between his platform and a genuine working-class program. In my own branch in the SF Bay Area, leading members have attempted to bridge the gap with his campaign by appealing to socialism as almost a moral idea wherein we merely “go further” than Sanders’ “democratic socialism”. Indeed, in my branch many members personally endorse the Democratic candidate. In Seattle, comrades have helped organize ‘For-Bernie’ committees. I cannot understand how this is anything other than entrism in the outer fringes of the Democratic party. 

The leadership is correct that we can recruit members from this – but on what basis other than based on their illusions rather than helping them develop a clearer class consciousness? Are we helping to build an independent movement of the working class – be it electorally, in the streets or on the job, or has SA has moved to a position of tacit support for Sanders? We are talking about Sanders’ “movement”, but this is a movement without any real soldiers, one which lacks a campaign in the streets, etc. We are in effect providing Left cover for his candidacy rather than attempting to connect the sincere desires of the workers and students who support him to independent struggle. 

In fact, leading comrades have argued that to talk to Sanders supporters about his imperialist foreign policy, reactionary stance on immigration, refusal to amplify the needs/demands of people of color, etc. is akin to a Spartacist-like approach of “lecturing” workers. Instead, as one leading comrade I know has said, we should “let the workers figure it out for themselves”. This reduces the role of SA to cheerleading, orienting toward the consciousness of white progressives instead of building a movement of the most oppressed and exploited in this country. This uncritical approach toward Sanders seems to be connected to an opportunist approach that has generally developed toward municipal progressives and the union leadership in the last couple years. 


Tacoma 15 Now

In Tacoma, the party has completely refused to support the $15/hr Now ballot initiative, and it appears this betrayal of 15 Now is partially driven by a desire to maintain a friendly relationship with some of the local union officialdom which is backing the Mayor’s conservative $12 in 2018 plan. In fact, Comrade Sawant even went so far as to refuse to support 15 Now Tacoma’s ballot initiative when it

Seattle City Council member and member of Socialist Alternative campaigning for a $15/hour minimum wage two years ago. She should have stuck to her guns.

Seattle City Council member and member of Socialist Alternative campaigning for a $15/hour minimum wage two years ago. She should have stuck to her guns.

came up for a vote before the King County Labor Council. In no other American city has there been as pure a divide between the fight for $15 and the diversionary concessions of the municipal liberals, and in no other U.S. town has there been the opportunity for a pure all-inclusive immediate wage raise. 

When I brought this issue up in my branch, leading comrades delivered the now almost boilerplate excuse that criticizing the union leadership will isolate us from their members. Just as, apparently, criticizing left-liberals will isolate us from freshly-politicized young people oriented toward Sanders. But for SA to quietly oppose the struggle in Tacoma to play nice with the union bureaucracy is, in reality, tailing the liberals. Moreover, if the anti-austerity consciousness among Tacoma workers is as strong as it appears to be, then how can it simultaneously be so fragile that disillusionment must result if we point out the way forward is not through their current union leaderships? 

Similarly, if the young people oriented toward Sanders truly represent a new movement from below around anti-capitalist politics, how can leaders argue their consciousness is so weak that to criticize Sanders will isolate us? 

Connected to other policies

It also seems to be connected to other policies. For example, it has been reported (and never denied) that at the height of the protests against police murders in Seattle, Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative oriented more towards the NAACP and establishment ministers than towards the radical black youth. If we truly believe Sanders’ populism represents an historic opportunity to organize workers independent of the big business parties, then we must have faith that workers and young people are serious enough to allow for critical intervention and not just massaging. In my branch, many of the same tactics now being heralded for the Sanders campaign were first tried in our intervention with supporters for Dan Siegel’s Oakland mayoral campaign. This is similar to Sawant’s former support for the liberal Democrat Larry Gossett and her close relationship with city council liberals like Nick Licata. It flows directly from her refusal to criticize the union leadership’s refusal to really fight for their members. This is connected to an opportunist approach toward certain left-liberals as a whole in the city, where, as one leading comrade in the bay area we put it, we “can’t support or endorse, but whom we want to win.”  (Note: Since this letter was written, Sawant and Socialist Alternative did directly support 5 liberal city council candidates by calling for the defeat of their opponents.)


“Popular Front”

This approach has a history –The Popular Front. Indeed, what the comrade said is very similar to the Communist Party’s slogan in the 1936 presidential election. They did not officially endorse FDR but they organized to “Defeat Landon at all costs, vote for Browder” – in essence a tacit support for a Democratic victory. 

“I’ve been banned…”

….. In my own branch, I have been banned from communicating over the email list and have been accused of being everything from being a plant of disgruntled ex-members to being a Republican. Hopefully from reading this letter you see I am an average rank-and-file member hoping to help put our party on the right track. If you are in a similar position, please contact me and perhaps we can start to raise our concerns in a more organized way within Socialist Alternative. Thank you.

UPDATE: Since this was written, our web site has published an article that is more critical of Bernie Sanders. But this article was coupled with a new one by Jess Spear in which she repeats that SA’s role is to build a movement that could ‘really’ “win Sanders’ progressive platform” and calling on him to run independently. We are speaking out of both sides of our mouth. The spirit of this article is essentially that Sanders is an “insurgent” who is ‘not really’ a Democrat, and despite our “disagreements” with him we should orient toward him and call on him to be his best self. Yet, how can we expect a politician who has caucused with the Democrats his whole career to lead a movement for a workers’ party? Without an open discussion on these problems, we will continue to wander from one mistake to another without having really learned anything.

Oakland Socialist comments

We think this letter explains a lot about how the support for the union leadership – a leadership that represents the employers and one of their parties, the Democrats, inside the unions – how support for them is tied to failure to take an independent position on a series of other issues. As far as Bernie Sanders is concerned, the main point is the crying need for a mass workers’ party. We think such a party will start to come into existence through the campaigns of independent left candidates, candidates who run completely outside of and opposed to the Republicrat paradigm. Campaigns like that of Sanders do just the opposite – they tend to channel the movement back into the Democratic Party, where it dies. Sawant’s support for Sanders and her support for the five liberal Democratic candidates for Seattle city council were principled mistakes. For a more in depth explanation, see this article.

NOTE: We have had over 600 hits on this post. Hopefully, some of them are by members of Socialist Alternative or other CWI-associated groups. We encourage you to raise these issues within your group or, at the very least, among your comrades.

6 replies »

  1. good luck “raising your concerns in an organized way” when you’re probably expelled for this!

  2. Sawant failed to endorse the independent candidate, anti-foreclosure housing activist Josh Farris, for the Seattle City Council in the primary. However, in the general election, she campaigned for Democrats for the City Council. Here is one example of the kind of support she gave, quoted from the linked video:
    “Kshama Sawant Spoke at the Rally to Make Seattle Affordable for All”

    Minute 5:20 “…We do at this moment have a few voices inside city hall that are truly committed to the needs of working people. It was that strategy of building a powerful
    campaign that forced Carl Haglund to back down, because when he does not have the ability to buy up council members like Nick Licata and myself is when he loses. But that’s what this election year is going to come down to. What we need are candidates that enter City Hall who have not been bankrolled my big developers.”
    Min. 7:40 “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that every single vote is cast in favor of progressive candidates. Because we know people want that. But it is not going to happen automatically it requires all of us to be out there, at the doors, on the streets at the bus stops talking to people and informing them.”
    Min. 11:20 “And then once we have elected a progressive block of candidates to City Hall we have a lot to look forward to.”

  3. Thanks for this information, Doug Nielson. It is so extremely unfortunate that Sawant has been walking down the road that Bernie Sanders has trodden. She is sacrificing the most important task – the start of building a movement towards a mass workers’ party – for some immediate reforms. This is the essence of reformism. What’s so ironic is that building such a movement will go even further towards wringing reforms from the capitalist class. That’s the lesson of 15 Now Tacoma (see, for example: http://oaklandsocialist.com/2015/10/22/15-now-tacoma-can-win-sawant-refuses-support/).

    • You are misinformed about the politics of SA. Especially if you read us at reformist… This sounds like some sectarian divisiveness to me. Great way to accomplish building a mass workers party…

      • In reply to Kelsey Schomberger:
        In the first place, “Sean Greaves” never implied that he “represents” Socialist Alternative, nor that he holds any official position within it. On the contrary.

        As far as “sectarian divisiveness”: It’s all too easy to throw strong words like that around, but just saying something is so doesn’t make it so. It is ironic to her Kelsey comment sarcastically, “great way to accomplish building a mass workers party.” Does she think that a workers party will be built by supporting Democrats at the local or national level? Really. We would like a response to that.

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