Now that Bernie Sanders has officially withdrawn from the race, what lessons will be learned by his tens of thousands of supporters? For many of the 20+ year olds, it’s entirely understandable that they enthusiastically backed his campaign. After all, he promised very real steps to make their lives better, like forgiving student debt and government-paid health insurance. Many of those supporters were probably unfamiliar with previous similar campaigns. These include those of Dennis Kucinich, Jesse Jackson, and George McGovern (who actually won the nomination). The list goes all the way back to Gene McCarthy in 1972. What came of all those campaigns? What was built out of them? And what will be built out of Sanders’s campaign? Will it be anything more than just another attempt to push the Democrats to the left, which may happen for awhile, until the pressure eases Then they will slide right back into their more openly pro-corporate comfort zone.
The end of Sanders’s campaign and the history of the similar ones of the past shows what the “dirty break” strategy is really all about. That is the strategy that recognizes that, yes, the working class needs its own party and, yes, we have to break from the Democratic Party, but says that for now let’s support some Democrats. Further on down the road, we can have a clean break, but for now, let’s keep our foot in that camp. Foremost among the advocates of this has been the Democratic Socialists of America. It sounds very strategic – a “dirty” break – but in reality there is nothing new about it. A layer of the union bureaucracy has been carrying this out for many decades. “Yes, we need a working class party (or labor party), but we don’t have one right now, so we have to support the Democrats,” went the argument. It was used to simply kick the can further down the road, to avoid any steps towards building that party. It reminds one of what they used to say about nuclear fusion energy – that nuclear fusion is the energy source of the future and always will be.
Present mood: get Trump out
Especially in the Covid-19 disaster, but even without it, the overwhelming mood already is “we have to get Trump out and any attempt to put up a third party candidate will only split the vote and help Trump get reelected.” It is understandable why people feel that way and any third party candidacy at this point is futile at best. That includes Howie Hawkins’ campaign for the Green Party nomination. Hawkins’ program is hardly any different from that of Sanders. Nor does it seem at all likely that the Greens will ever develop into a true party of the working class.
The main driving force among socialist activists for Sanders was Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Unfortunately, connected as it is with the union bureaucracy on one side and the liberal wing of the Democrats (and the non-profits who represent them) on the other, DSA never took any degree of independence. They showed what the “dirty break” meant in practice. Programatically, the DSA leadership ensured that they never went beyond “Medicare for All”. The issue of socialized medicine was never raised. (Just imagine how support for that call would have taken off had they been raising it all along!)
Sanders talked a lot about “not me, us” and claimed that he was building a mass movement. What he really meant by that slogan was shown by Misty Rebik, Iowa State director of the Sanders campaign. She said “Our campaign has officially held the three largest rallies in Iowa. We’ve knocked over half a million doors in the last month. That is what we mean by ‘Not Me, Us.’” In other words, it never was about anything more than elections. It was never about building a movement in the streets. That’s why DSA never seriously mobilized around all the issues of the last few years – not around the confirmation of serial sex abuser Matt Kavanaugh for Supreme Court, not around the federal government shutdown, not around impeachment. True, Sanders personally appeared at one or two union picket lines, but there’s nothing whatsoever unusual about that. All sorts of Democrats do that when it suits their purposes.
Covid-19 & worker organizing
With social distancing necessary, mobilizing in the streets is off the agenda for now. But a new movement is developing. From Amazon to McDonalds, workers are striking to demand safe working conditions. They can’t wait any longer. Ironically, with a few exceptions these are in the main non-union workers. Meanwhile, from the building trades to grocery workers, the union leadership is literally missing in action. At best, they are appealing to the Democratic politicians to shut down non-essential jobs. Workers cannot wait any longer. The self-organizing among some sectors must spread to the rest. Those most courageous and thoughtful workers can get together on the job, form a committee to organize the entire work force to meet, discuss and vote whether or not their job is essential and whether it should be shut down. If so, organize a walk-off. If the job remains open, then what’s needed is an elected worker health and safety committee to impose safe working conditions on the employer.
If DSA had been organizing independently, it would be in a position to build on its previous campaigns to organize exactly that. It’s not too late. It can start now, but it means a break from past practice and a break from all wings of the union bureaucracy, including the staffers at the local level. DSA’s vaguely worded statement on the Covid-19 disaster makes that seem unlikely, since they mention no concrete steps to take along those lines.We must not allow that failure to stop those of us who really want an independent working class fight. Learn from the past and move on. This disaster give us no choice.