Sunday, January 10, 2016

Bernie Sanders: Socialist Alternative's Unprecedented Shift

Many of Socialist Alternative’s new young members who also support the Sanders campaign might be unaware that SA’s official new position that the organization is campaigning for and endorsing a Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders, and will continue to do so should he win the nomination for the Democratic Party candidate for president, is an historic decision for a so-called revolutionary socialist organization. Admin.

By Sean O’Torain

The Socialist Alternative group has gotten a lot of publicity recently since its councilor Kshama Sawant was elected in Seattle. It has also been prominent in the $15.00 an hour campaign. It deserves credit for its work on these fronts, though I have some differences with them on their way of working in the minimum wage campaign and they make too many compromises with the union bureaucracy. For over 20 years I was a member of Labor Militant which became Socialist alternative. Labor Militant was, and Socialist Alternative is, the US affiliate of the Committee for a Workers' International. These organizations have an undemocratic internal life. I was expelled from Labor Militant and the CWI organizations and denied my right to appeal against my expulsion. But that is another story. Today I wish to raise the position of SA on the Sanders’ run to be the Democratic nominee for President.   

Last night I attended a meeting of SA in Chicago on the Sanders campaign. From beginning to end it was an appeal to get out the vote for Sanders or as the SA calls him Bernie. There were about 50 people at this meeting. One thing that struck me was that of the many hundreds, in fact thousands of activists on one issue or the other in the Chicagoland area this was a small meeting. Absent also were any signs of the rank and file of the 320 union locals in the city or of the half a million trade unionists who are affiliated through their locals to the Chicago Federation of Labor. It was clear that SA had not managed to build an alliance from these forces for their position on Sanders and the 2016 elections. 

At this meeting I got the chance to ask two questions. The first I asked was how they saw the role of, and their connection if any, with the 320 union locals and the half million union members in the Chicagoland area. There was no answer of any kind to this. In fact, I was looked at as if I had two heads. What was I talking about? The truth is that just about nobody at the meeting knew of the trade union movement in the city, and certainly did not see it as playing any role. Of course, first and foremost, the blame for this has to be laid at the feet of the union leaders who are in bed with the Democratic Party and the bosses, but it is the responsibility of groups like the SA and all on the left and all activists to point out the existence of the trade union movement and the cowardly role and betrayal of its leadership. This leadership plays a big role in the sense that it corrals its resources into supporting the Democratic Party and its candidates. But with the exception of myself this was never mentioned.

The second question I asked was what would Socialist Alternative do if Sanders won the nomination and was running as the candidate for President of the USA for the capitalist Democratic Party? The Chair of the meeting was Stephen Edwards the long time member of SA in Chicago. Up until that time when I asked this question he had been taking speakers from the stack as they had raised their hands. But after I asked this question he intervened immediately and directly answered my question. It was clear he wanted the SA position to be immediately spelled out and understood. He said: "We are working and campaigning for Sanders to win the nomination and if he does win it we will be working and campaigning for him to win the election."

I have to say that I was shocked. Here was a self-styled revolutionary socialist organization working for and campaigning for a candidate of the capitalist Democratic Party. The entire meeting was dominated by this. Sanders’ flyers were distributed to those who would distribute them, post them in their neighborhoods schools, colleges. No mention was made of workplaces.  Lists were drawn up of volunteers for Sanders. A collection was taken to raise money to elect Bernie as the SA refers to Sanders. I knew they have a record of making concessions to the union bureaucracy, I knew they had been playing footsie with Sanders, but to hear it from one of their leading members that they were working and campaigning for Sanders to win the Democratic Party nomination and if he won it they would be campaigning and working to get him elected as President of the USA, was shocking. The SA has been carried away in an opportunist capitulation to the Sanders campaign.    

The other thing that was missing at this meeting was any discussion of the US economy and world wide economic, political and military crisis of imperialism. The crisis of climate change was absent as was any discussion on the recent poisoning of the water supply in Flint Michigan and the methane gas leak in California, a state of emergency being declared in both communities. The earthquakes erupting across the US due to fracking, the crisis in the Middle East, Sanders’ pro-Zionist views and his general support for a catastrophic US foreign policy, this too was absent as was events in Chicago around police murders and a campaign to oust mayor Rahm Emanuel, another Democrat. No group can raise everything at every meeting, but to raise none of these issues was astounding.

The meeting was entirely about electing Bernie. It is clear the SA has become an uncritical part of the election machine of the Democratic Party contender Sanders for the nomination to run for President of the USA. At this meeting SA tried to say that Sanders was a special kind of Democrat and therefore by implication not really a Democrat as he did not take corporate money. 

This Blog has pointed to the crisis that will emerge when Sanders either wins the nomination or throws his support behind Clinton, the latter being the most likely. With either of these developments a break in the situation will come with tens of thousands of former Sanders’ supporters trying to figure out what to do next as throwing his support behind Clinton will convince the doubters that he is just another Democratic Party loyalist.

This is an important area of discussion for socialists, anti-capitalists and all those fighting against austerity, as thousands of people will be trying to figure out what to do politically. What is to be done when the break comes, what is to be done to prepare for this break? Some would be tempted to drop out of political struggle in disillusionment. This would not be positive for the movement against the offensive of the 1%. Some of Sanders’ base will be tempted to hold their noses and continue to work with and support him in the Democratic Party. This would not be positive either as the Democratic Party would choke the life out of these forces.  

But even if he wins the nomination and especially if by some wild possibility were he to win the presidency, this would also have serious repercussions among Sanders’ supporters as neither his policies nor the Democratic Party can resolve the social and political crisis of US capitalism. One Wall Street trader that has donated money to Sanders is not worried about his attacks on his profession if one can call it that, “It’s a metaphor. There’s not going to be a Kristallnacht in Lower Manhattan.” says Wade Black an equities manager, “He’s talking about regulation, not shutting down the stock exchange.”

There is another issue. Sanders’ obsession with equality, in particular income inequality and fairness, does not apply to the political arena and democratic rights for political parties. He does not make an issue of other candidates and political parties being shut out of televised debates. This is particularly relevant when it comes to the Green Party and its most likely candidate, Jill Stein, being shut out of the debates. Stein was arrested trying to get in to the debates in 2012.  The Green party and Stein’s politics are certainly closer to Sanders’ and far to the left of Hillary Clinton.  Why not support Stein?

This is a very valid area for discussion. Some, but not all of us who contribute to this Blog, believe we should advocate that instead of joining the Sanders/Democratic Party movement, activists who want change, should join the Green Party and call on the people who will be disillusioned with Sanders to join the Green Party and vote for Jill Stein in November. We advocate that when the break comes, when Sanders is exposed, his base would have the Green Party to join and move in to and build.  This is in spite of the program of the Green Party not being socialist. But as part of our work in the Green Party we would advocate the building in a non sectarian manner of a current in that Party to convince it to adopt an openly democratic socialist program, a program to take the dominant sectors of the economy out of the privately owned, profit-driven hands of the capitalist class and put them instead into public ownership under democratic control and management of the working class. To that end we welcome the recent statement by Jill Stein where she calls for the nationalization of the oil and gas industries. The tendency in the Green Party as far as its program is concerned will be for it to go left because of, amongst other reasons, the crisis of climate change with which the Party is so connected, will increasingly show that capitalism cannot solve this crisis.  

As well as seeking to convince the Party to be an openly socialist party, we believe that this current should also advocate that the Green Party come out and state that it seeks to become a workers party. The class character of the Green Party is not yet decided. It is not a capitalist party. But neither is it a workers party. Events will play a major role in deciding its future but so also can a conscious non-sectarian current within it. Such a current, as well as advocating its policies inside the party, should seek to create Green Party locals in workplaces and the rank and file of trade unions and in, the communities schools and colleges, and in this way help develop organic links, real roots in the working class and move it in the direction of being a workers party.

We who run this Blog have broken from the wrong methods of the sectarian self styled revolutionary lefts. Part of doing so involves open, honest and democratic discussion. Part of it also involves seeking not to split at the first opportunity as tends to be the case with the revolutionary left, but while clarifying issues and openly articulating differences we also wish to try and see what differences can be lived with and what cannot. 

Complicated developments lie ahead. It is possible that such a movement could develop beneath Sanders that he could be tempted to build a third party alternative along the lines of some European countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal etc. where new left parties have sprung up and won considerable support. This could especially be the case if Trump ran independent from the Republicans and the entire two party system could begin to break up. In such a situation, the position taken by us all would have to carefully looked at. I personally cannot see myself ever supporting a Zionist, pro-imperialist and pro-capitalist demagogue like Sanders. But it could not be excluded that a new left party could develop at some stage out of the movement that at present forms much of his base. This could demand an adjustment, not an unprincipled adjustment, of the position of revolutionaries. 

The SA leadership has made an unprincipled adjustment to the organization’s political position to where they now, for the first time, are openly advocating working for a candidate of the capitalist Democratic Party. To my knowledge, this historic shift has not been thoroughly and openly debated among the ranks of Socialist Alternative.

Revolutionary socialists will have to keep an eye on developments and see what is possible as the fragmentation of US capitalist politics unfolds and see where a socialist alternative can be built with roots in the working class. Socialists are involved in a struggle for the consciousness of the working class. Those of us around this blog, and many other socialist groupings have no influence over events due to our tiny size but it is important to understand what is actually happening in the world around us and also to make a genuine attempt to learn form our mistakes, something that it impossible if we never openly admit making any.  The developing consciousness will take many leaps forward and leaps back, will go one day in this direction, one day in another. Like a child struggling to get to its feet and walk, there will be many stumbles.

 Flexible tactics will be important. But so also will be principles. 


Corey said...

"The meeting was entirely about electing Bernie." Isnt this what every meeting with a politician is about?

Eliphas8 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean said...

I regret that the second comment has been deleted by the author. The more open and wide the discussion the better. I would like to comment myself. Corey says that all meetings with a politician are about electing that politician. However the meeting in Chicago was not with a politician, in this case the politician would be the politician whom the SA affectionately refer to as Bernie. This was a SA meeting. The SA claims to be a revolutionary socialist organization. Any meeting therefore on the elections should be to explain its views on the crisis of US and world capitalism, the crisis of the working class leadership and the role revolutionaries should try to play in this situation. But this did not happen. This meeting was to call for a vote for "bernie" get a list of people who would work for him, put up posters, give out flyers etc, and a collection was taken to produce material calling for a vote for Sanders. As I say i regret the author of the second comment has decided to remove that comment. I hope this was not done under the pressure of the leadership of SA. If it was this is a bad sign. However it would also be in line with the undemocratic internal life of the SA. lenin would get enraged when members of the Bolshevik party would have differences and would not write these differences down and debate them in the party. He saw this as these members not fulfilling their duty to clarify the ideas of the Party. From the comment that was removed there has been very inadequate discussion in the SA on its position on Sanders. This is not good. It means the SA is not fulfilling its responsibility to the workers and youth it can meet and to its own members. This will come back to haunt them. It will especially do so when Sanders is exposed, either as running as the Democratic Party candidate for president or supporting Clinton or splitting off and setting up some kind of party to the left. By not having open debate on the perspectives for the sanders movement the SA leadership are preparing the way for confusion and splits and expulsions in their own ranks in the future. What should be happening now in SA is that those members who have a different position than the leadership should form a faction and fight for their position. Even if they are only agreed on the need for open and full discussion on sanders this is enough to form a faction. this faction would base itself on the need for an open and democratic internal life and a full honest discussion of the life and past history of the SA, before that it was known as Labor Militant. The CWI has made factions anathema in its internal life. We should remember that trotsky said that the healthy period of the Bolsheviks was when there factions in that party and even factions within faction. this is a million light years away from the internal lives of the SA and the CWI. The internal life was always wrong within the CWI. But as its world view was proven wrong by events its internal life went from bad to worse. Now in this period of the Internet this wrong undemocratic internal life is magnified a thousand times over. The SA and the CWI are doing serious damage to those workers and youth with whom they have managed to bring into its ranks and orbit.

Sean.O'Torain. Former full time member and expelled member of the CWI.

Doug said...

Thank you for the interesting account of the Chicago meeting. It looks like SA's leaders are convinced that the Democratic Party is about to shed a left wing. They have jumped in to encourage this development, and are trying to put themselves in a position of leadership when this split occurs. This is unprincipled, as you point out. It is true that, psychologically speaking, it is easier to trust someone with whom you have shared common beliefs and experiences. But it is also true that is hard to trust someone who is manipulative. Joining the Democratic Party when you have absolutely no faith in the Democratic Party as an instrument for building working class power, only because you want to be sitting beside someone as they (you hope) arrive at a similar conclusion, can only be seen as manipulative and dishonest. Guess what? Ideas are powerful, even more powerful than your ability to cuddle up. At some point SA will have to negotiate a complicated exit from the Democratic Party. They will then have to engage in un-violating their principles. What a mess!