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Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders. Image: Tom Williams via Getty Images

Despite Sanders' weaknesses, the possibilities for a revival of the movement in the US opened up by ‘Berniemania’ are real and cannot  be ignored argues Sean Ledwith

A grey-haired, veteran figure of the left declares his candidacy for a position of national significance and is promptly dismissed by most pundits as just making up the numbers; within a matter of weeks the candidate is attracting sell-out audiences of thousands to his rallies who respond enthusiastically to his message rejecting the neoliberal consensus; many of his supporters are noticeably younger voters, previously disengaged from mainstream politics but now deploying the power of social media to spread the word; then, sensationally, the candidate starts to overtake the favourites in polling and becomes front page news.

The similarities between the campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership in the UK and Bernie Sanders for the Democrat presidential nomination in the US are numerous and striking. Both men have established reputations as stalwart flag bearers for the left in their respective countries, spending most of their political careers on the margins and mostly being ignored by political and media elites. However, both have been spectacularly thrust into the spotlight this summer by outsider bids for office that have generated electrifying momentum.

Vermont-based Sanders was virtually unknown in the UK up to this point but in the US he is a familiar figure, frequently providing an isolated voice of dissent as Congress’ one and only explicitly Socialist Senator. Recent polls incredibly put him ahead of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, which will be the first state to hold its primary election next January. One gives him a 44-37% lead over Clinton among Democrat supporters - a barely believable situation not least because earlier this year Sanders trailed her by 44-8%!

Rejuvenated radicalism

Sanders’ campaign events have been equally stunning with 100,000 people attending them in recent weeks, including one in Los Angeles that packed in over 27,000 - five times the number who have turned up for any Clinton meeting! The heady atmosphere of rejuvenated radicalism also mirrors the experience of those who have witnessed the Corbyn surge in the UK. One report describes those packed into the LA rally:

'There were younghipsters and graying hippies. Some wore black T-shirts with red hammers and sickles; others wore black T-shirts that read “Black Lives Matter.'

Sanders’ rhetoric at these  huge meetings frequently  matches the expectations of such an audience. He told them:   

'There is no president who will fight harder to end institutional racism. Or for a higher minimum wage. Or for paid parental leave. Or for at least twoweeks of paid vacation. . . . Whenever we stand together, when we do not allow them to divide us up by the color of our skin or our sexual orientation, by whether a man or a woman is born in America or born somewhere else, whenever we stand together, there is nothing, nothing, nothing we cannot accomplish.'

The Sanders surge is noticeably being funded by a grassroots campaign that does not rely on the corporate donations or big union support that Clinton can count on. Within weeks of his declaration, Sanders had raised $15 million, with the average donation consisting of just over $33 and the overwhelming majority being less than $250.

Excitement on both sides of the Atlantic about the surge needs to be tempered with extreme caution, however, even more so than in the case of its British equivalent, as the project of using the Democrats  as a vehicle of radical change is fatally flawed. The individual at the centre of the surge is also less impressive than Corbyn in the consistency and coherence of his opposition to the status quo. Nevertheless, the possibilities for a revival of the movement in the US opened up by ‘Berniemania’ are real and cannot  be ignored.

Who is Bernie Sanders?

Sanders was born into a working-class, immigrant family in New York in the year the US entered the Second World War. Developing his political consciousness in the era of the protests against the Vietnam War, Sanders initially tried to stand for office as a representative of Liberty Union, one of numerous radical fragments that evolved out of the anti-war movement.

As the Democrats had initiated the disastrous conflict in South East Asia under JFK, and then intensified it under Lyndon Johnson, the party was widely discredited on the US left and the prospects for a re-alignment of the movement were promising. The opportunity was lost, however, as the Democrats re-asserted their electoral grip over the labour movement in the late 1960s, and then Nixon spearheaded a revival of the American right that recaptured the White House.

Sanders drifted out of politics, spending some his time as a documentary film-maker; one of his most notable projects being a film about Eugene Debs, a legendary figure on the US left who achieved a million votes running for the Presidency as a Socialist in 1920.

Sanders’ own electoral breakthrough came in 1981, when he successfully stood as an independent for Mayor of Burlington, the state capital of Vermont. An aide expressed the astonishment of many about a victory for the left during the high tide of Reaganism:

'It was like Trotsky had been elected mayor… But it wasn’t Trotsky. It was Bernie.'

Enough is enough

The surprise breakthrough gave Sanders the platform to be re-elected three times, and then proceed onto Congress, where he has represented the state in both chambers since 1990. Using these platforms, Sanders has established a notable record as a long-standing critic of the excesses of US foreign policy. He spoke out against the country’s complicity with the apartheid state in South Africa, condemned the invasion of Grenada in 1983 and travelled to Nicaragua two years later to offer his support to the revolutionary regime there. He voted against both Bush adventures in the Middle East; Senior’s 1991 war against Saddam and Junior’s sequel in 2003.

On domestic policy, Sanders’ current campaign appears equally attractive. He has promised a trillion-dollar employment programme founded on renewable energy, backs the $15 minimum wage and promises to deepen and extend the provisions of Obamacare. Sanders’ rhetoric has adroitly raked  the embers of the Occupy movement that energised the US at the start of this decade, only to dissipate in the face of police aggression and organisational confusion. Sanders launched his bid in May with a rousing declaration of intent that echoed the spirit of 2011: 

"Enough is enough. This great nation and its government belong to all of the people and not to a handful of billionaires, their super PACs and their lobbyists."

Like Corbyn, he has become an electoral  lightning rod for accumulated anger  throughout  a cross-section of society about the mounting inequality of Western capitalist economies and the aggressive imperial ventures they have inflicted on the rest of the world. The Sanders surge can partly  be seen as a US version of the electoral  awakening  of a new left  that has manifested itself as Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the SNP in Scotland, and now the  Corbyn campaign in England.

Limitations

There are major differences between Sanders' politics and those of the above, however, that mean his impact is likely to be less durable than theirs. Crucially, Sanders has chosen not to run as an independent but as a candidate for the Democrat nomination. This means he has committed himself to backing whoever ultimately wins the contest within the party next year, still likely to be the blatantly pro-Wall Street/pro-imperial candidacy of Hillary Clinton. In such event, any traction built up by his campaign this year is likely to evaporate in disillusionment.

Although Sanders is officially an Independent within Congress, he repeatedly caucuses with the Democrats and is effectively integrated into their voting structure. Despite the apparently radical track record outlined above, Sanders ' policy positions on various issues are also problematic and far less impressive than those of Corbyn.  Like virtually all US politicians, he has been a staunch apologist for the Zionist state over many decades and last year backed the Israelis'  savage assault on Gaza that slaughtered 1,500 civilians, including 500 children.

In addition, he supported the re-assertion of the US imperial agenda in Europe that underscored the bombing of Serbia in 1999; voted in favour of Bush Jnr's Patriot Act that curtailed civil liberties in the wake of 9/11; blames Russia, rather than the US, for the turbulence in Ukraine and displays only ambivalence over the current American bombing campaign against Isis in Iraq.

Sanders' much-vaunted opposition to corporate lobbying apparently does include the giant arms manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, whose half-a-trillion dollar F35 fighter project will allegedly create thousands of jobs in his home state of Vermont.

Sheepdog of the left?

The Senator has also been criticised for lacking consistency by organisers of what is currently the most important protest movement in the US-the Black Lives Matter campaign. The police killings of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice and hundreds of others in recent years have propelled the issue of institutional racism to the forefront of the domestic agenda and tarnished the global reputation of the US state even further after its imperial misadventures.

Sanders' has been accused of not prioritising this issue and was widely condemned by the BLM campaign last year for his weak response to the Ferguson uprising: "I was a mayor for eight years,and I know police a little bit. It's a very difficult job they've got."

This month, BLM supporters shouted down Sanders at one of his mass rallies in protest over his uncertain  stance on the question of police racism.

BLM activists fear Sanders will only serve to create a 'sheepdog effect', herding leftist opinion in the US towards the Clinton campaign and leaving his supporters with little choice but to back her once the momentum expires. Editor of Black Rights Agenda, Bruce Dixon, expresses this view: 

'Bernie will lose, Hillary will win. When Bernie folds his tent in the summer of 2016, the money, the hopes and prayers, the year of activist zeal that folks put behind Bernie Sanders' either vanishes into thin air, or directly benefits the Hillary Clinton campaign.'

Co-optation

Such an outcome would not be the first time,the Democrats have co-opted a movement to their left and neutralised its impact. In the 1930s.the huge labour revolts in cities such as Minneapolis and Toledo that had been spearheaded by the far left  were diverted by the Stalinist left and the union bureaucracy into the arms of FDR.

As noted above, the anti-war movement of the sixties lost its way because the bulk of its activists believed the Democrats could be converted into a progressive force. Similarly, in the mid 1980s, Jesse Jackson mobilised a diverse and vibrant movement, the Rainbow Coalition, that looked like it might be able to take on the Reagan agenda, only to steer it into electoral oblivion under the auspices of the party hierarchy.

A pessimistic assessment of the Sanders surge suggests these experiences may be about to be repeated. Writing at the beginning of the last century, Sanders' hero, Eugene Debs, noted the nature of the big two US parties in an assessment that remains valid today:

'The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.  With either of those parties in power one thing is always certain and that is that the capitalist class is in the saddle and the working class under the saddle.'

The futility of transforming the Democrats does not mean, however, that socialists should sit on the sidelines and denounce Sanders and all those who have flocked to him in recent weeks. The Corbyn phenomenon in this country is a sharp reminder that bourgeois politics across the West are entering a dynamic and fluid era with some surprising reconfigurations taking place on the left, based on an intersection of electoral and street politics.

Assuming Clinton holds off the Sanders surge to secure the nomination next year, an optimistic view of the Sanders surge would be that he changes his mind and decides to initiate an independent bid for the White House. The example of Kshama Sawant in Seattle provides positive evidence of the potential for the US left to revive on the basis of an electoral challenge embedded in a mass movement.

If the pessimistic view of the current campaign prevails, however, we should take this opportunity, while it lasts, to muse on the intriguing thought of Prime Minister Corbyn stepping out of Number Ten in 2020 to greet President Sanders.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean has also written for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, Historical MaterialismPolitical Studies Review and Reviews in History 

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