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Sanders, the Democrats, and the Left

Jason Schulman and Bernard Sampson

Platypus Review #86 | May 2016

On April 2, 2016, during its eighth international convention in Chicago, Illinois, Platypus brought together Jason Schulman of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Bernard Sampson of the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA), to discuss how the electoral campaign of Bernie Sanders matters for the Left. Coeditor of the socialist journal New Politics, Jason Schulman’s latest book is Neoliberal Labour Governments and the Union Response: The Politics of the End of Labourism. He currently teaches political science at St. Francis College. A native Texan, Bernard Sampson has been a member of the CPUSA since 1977 and visited the USSR in 1981. He is the club chair of the Houston branch of the CPUSA, a member of the CPUSA National Committee, and a precinct chair for the Democratic Party in Houston, Texas. The event was moderated by Danny Jacobs of Platypus. Below is an edited transcript of their discussion.

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton shake hands before the start of the Democratic Party debate on March 9, 2016. © Javier Galeano / Reuters

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton shake hands before the start of the Democratic Party debate on March 9, 2016. © Javier Galeano / Reuters

Opening remarks:

Jason Schulman: These remarks are based on a recent article of mine about Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party.1 Let us start with the peculiarities of the American political system and its two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. Nobody on the Left denies they both have bourgeois origins. In the past they functioned more like traditional parties that dictated who ran for office. Beginning in the late 1910s, however, both parties underwent fundamental structural changes that dismantled the political machines. The ballot line is now run by the state.

Political parties in the U.S. are not private associations with strict control of membership and ballot access. Candidates in the Democratic and the Republican parties run on their own program. The platform adopted at the national convention every four years is largely ignored. It is almost impossible for party leaders to ensure that everyone votes in line. In contrast, party disloyalty is a meaningful charge in parliamentary systems. Tony Blair forced Ken Livingstone out of the British Labour Party, for example. That sort of thing does not happen in the United States.

Yes, Democrats are overwhelmingly ruling-class politicians who rely on capitalist wealth. Even the most left-wing Democrats take some money from corporate political action committees (PACs). However, while corporate money buys access to politicians, it does not always influence their votes. The most left-wing Democrats take some corporate money, but are still able to vote the right way most of the time. Our rotten system of private campaign financing, along with the weakness of the labor movement, means that few politicians at the national level can completely avoid corporate PAC money. Campaign finance reform is necessary before a stance like that is remotely viable.

Those who draw from the Marxist tradition are correct to view political parties as representing specific social classes. However, we must take into account that parties in America are not really parties, and that our system of campaign financing is especially oligarchical. Under these peculiar conditions, it is not a betrayal of class-struggle politics to support the most left-wing Democrats. Abstaining from the Sanders campaign would mean missing a unique opportunity to connect with millions of working-class people who are being exposed to terms like “democratic socialism” and “political revolution” for the first time in a positive way, even if Bernie’s interpretation of those terms is more moderate than our own.

All that being said, left-liberals and radical leftists are not poised to take over the Democratic Party. It is hard to transform a state-run ballot line into what we need: a real, independent, left-wing political party, democratically controlled by its members. I wish Walter Reuther and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) had founded a labor party, as they said they would in 1948. They did not, nor did the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and here we are today. At present, organized labor in the U.S. is simply too weak to start a party modeled on British Labour. Even the most left-wing American labor organizations support the Democrats as a matter of course. They are not really in a position to do otherwise.

Our best option, then, is to be critical supporters of the Sanders campaign from within it. If we remain outside his campaign, nothing we say will matter. If we are in the fray, we can explain that we support the campaign even though we have criticisms. We can say that the social-democratic reforms put forth by Sanders are valuable while arguing that it is necessary to go beyond capitalism itself, a goal that cannot be achieved by electing someone president. Operating within the campaign, we can seek to deepen the meaning of terms like “democratic socialism” and “political revolution” in an explicitly Marxist way.

In the end, the superdelegates may represent a problem too large for Sanders to overcome. However, if the superdelegates prove to be the only obstacle to the nomination of Sanders, that might expose how the Democratic Party is a fundamentally undemocratic party, prompting the more left-wing Democrats to split. Many think that Trump can split the Republican Party. A split on the Republican side would greatly increase the likelihood of a split in the Democratic Party. I sincerely hope something like this comes to pass and that the Democratic Party does not survive the turmoil. Perhaps then we will finally get the genuinely democratic party of the Left that we have needed for decades.

Bernard Sampson: I agree with most of what you said, Jason. I have been involved in the campaign for Bernie since November of 2014. We set up the first website in the U.S. calling for Bernie to win, Houstonians for Bernie Sanders, and we have been leading the coalition for Bernie in Houston ever since.

We do not agree with everything he says, but Bernie has found success to a degree no other socialist has. Some people say he is not a socialist, but every socialist defines socialism a little differently. Right now, if you come out with the maximum demand, the overthrow of capitalism, you are not going to get anywhere.

Running as a third-party candidate is a losing proposition. The main parties can co-opt any third party by tacking right or left. If it were not for Sanders, Clinton would not have adopted half the positions that she now holds. The Democrats and the Republicans are both capitalist parties, but they cannot fully control who runs in their elections. Therefore the Left can work within the Democratic Party, not to take it over, but in order to get publicity and organize a left wing from within it. The Democratic National Convention will work against you, of course. We have already seen how the pro-Hillary establishment has maneuvered in response to the Sanders campaign, but these obstacles can be overcome.

Independent socialists should stay independent, but Sanders is not really a member of the Democratic Party. He has only become one on paper for the publicity. If he ran as an independent, he would be getting even less coverage than he is now. This is not a parliamentary system. As Marxists, we have to adapt to the particularities of the American political system in order to put a curse on both houses.

In the 1840s, early communists in America took part in the founding of the Republican Party. They sought to aid pro-capitalist forces in the overthrow slavery. Today we face a similar situation with the threat of the ultra right, the military industrial complex, and the Tea Party. American forms of fascism wait in the wings of these far-right forces. Thousands of armed people are members of these groups. It is a very dangerous situation.

We should also consider the future appointment of Supreme Court justices and federal judges. You can march all day, mobilize the people, and pressure legislators. In the end, the Supreme Court will decide what happens and what rights people have. With the disintegration of women’s rights, civil rights, unions, and so on, it is important for democracy and for the advance towards socialism that we think through the consequences of our actions.

As Marxists, we have to look at the objective conditions and adapt our ideas to them. Most people have no understanding of what socialism is. Even among the people who support Bernie, I would say about one in 30 identifies as a socialist. Bernie is appealing to millions of people who do not call themselves socialists. The only way to mold this situation to our advantage is by working in the Sanders campaign.

In Houston, we work daily with the people making the calls, going door-to-door, and coming to the meetings. These people are being exposed to socialist ideas for the first time. We hold a socialist reading group, hand out literature, host movie nights, and so on, in order to intersect them. We do all this in order to build a progressive coalition that will continue whether Bernie is elected or not. If he is elected, we will need millions of people marching and voting in order to pressure liberal Democrats to pass Bernie’s legislative measures. If he loses, we still need a base from which we can keep building the movement.

The Sanders campaign is not like the anti-war movement. This campaign is based on electoral politics, not anarchist demonstrations where people just march, give speeches, etc. People are learning a discipline that the Left tends to ignore: how to get someone elected. The Left spends a lot of time on the ideological struggle, the economic struggle, the trade union struggle, but it often neglects the electoral struggle. The real challenge is to achieve a unity of these different struggles.

Q & A

How do you assess the ultra-right political groups in the United States today? Is the goal to recruit such people to a socialist politics? How does campaigning for the Democratic Party help fight against the ultra right?

JS: It has been difficult to categorize Donald Trump. I do not think he is fascist in the traditional European sense. I doubt he is going to become president, but it is still a big problem that any presidential candidate is encouraging violence the way Trump is. Actively supporting Clinton does not help us challenge the right. Here I might disagree with Bernard and the CPUSA. If Clinton wins the nomination, neither the DSA nor I will be advocating a vote for her. Members in swing states will do what they feel is right, but the DSA will not be out there helping Clinton’s campaign.

BS: Donald Trump is a political genius. He understands that in every country, about 33% of the population is made up of degenerates who are right-wing, racist, sexist, homophobic, and so on. They form a base for the right wing of the Republican Party. Attacking immigrants, insulting John McCain, and all of the other outrageous things Trump said were geared toward splitting the Tea Party away from Ted Cruz. These people cannot be won over to Bernie Sanders. They are a bunch of degenerates. Fascists support Trump, even if Trump himself is not a fascist.

If Sanders loses the nomination, he has already said he will endorse Clinton. He is not going to run as an independent. Hillary has voted the same as Sanders 93% of the time. I do not like anything about the Clintons. Hillary is a dishonest warmonger. However, as a communist, my struggle is against the ultra right. Should Clinton win the nomination, my struggle is against what could be unleashed if we do not support her. If Clinton is nominated, I might not advocate strongly for her, but I am going to hold my nose and vote Democrat. The struggle against Trump or Cruz is too important.

The struggle for socialism is based on victories in the struggle for democracy. We need to win the battle of democracy, as Marx says. Through victories in the battle for democracy, the working class discovers that bourgeois democracy is a sham and that a workers’ democracy, a proletarian state, is the only solution.

The “left wing” of the Democrats is the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC). A split in the Democratic Party would not result in a socialist party or a labor party, but at best in a progressive party, limited to the existing constituencies of the CPC without an expanded working-class base. Regarding the “degenerates,” as Bernard put it, one of the most interesting things about the Sanders campaign has been its appeal to people who feel they are not represented by the establishment of either major party. Doesn’t this show that an independent socialist party might have a much wider reach than a “left split” from the Democrats ever could?

JS: When I brought up a split in the party, I was not primarily talking about the elected officials. Some of the officials might join an independent party if Sanders went his own way. I am mostly concerned with the base, however. A lot of people would be thankful they are no longer in the same party as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and their ilk.

BS: There will not be a split in the Democratic Party. Bernie will support Hillary, whether we like it or not. The Bernie supporters who reject Hillary are not organized. They are not going to form a separate party. Even if they did, it would not be more politically effective than any other third parties have been.

My name is Christoph and I am a member of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT). Marx noted that one of the key tasks of the proletariat is to take independent action. That is the basic premise for revolutionary socialists. What the comrade speakers suggest is very different. You both spent a lot of time justifying why Sanders is running on a Democratic ticket. I suspect you did that because you have read some Marx, Lenin, and Luxemburg, and deep down you know that there is something fundamentally wrong with what you are calling for.

All the Marxists before us explained to the working class that you must not enter into coalitions with the bourgeoisie, that you have to keep your politics separate, and that the main enemy is the bourgeoisie at home, even during times of war. Those were the lessons of the First, Second, and Third International—the revolutionary Third International, I should say. Yet you have both argued that, due to the peculiarities of the U.S. system, one can just go ahead and join up with the Democrats, one of the parties of the ruling class. The Democrats are bankrolled and controlled by Wall Street. They will always defend the interests of the ruling class.

Sanders is not trying to break with the capitalist party. People who might actually split from the Democrats are being drawn back in! This is the biggest danger with Sanders. He is running on the Democratic Party ticket and therefore is an obstacle to independent working-class action.

JS: Yes, the goal is to create a working-class party that is democratically controlled by its members. I promise, comrade, that I have read as much Marx, Luxemburg, and Lenin as you have. However, I agree with the late Julius Jacobson, cofounder of New Politics and a revolutionary socialist. In reference to Jesse Jackson’s bid for president as a Democrat in 1988, Jacobson wrote, “To take advantage of the facilities offered by the Democratic Party primary involves no necessary compromise of socialist principles,” provided that these facilities are being used “as a vehicle for propagandizing a position with an eye on building a movement outside the Democratic Party.”2 Jackson failed to do this—and he should be damned for it—but this describes precisely what Sanders is doing.

Your argument, Christoph, is basically a variation on the claim that Bernie Sanders is a “sheepdog” for Hillary Clinton. It would perhaps be credible if there were anything to “sheepdog” in the first place. Unfortunately, right now there is no politically effective movement for an independent left party. If there were, my judgment of the Sanders campaign would be quite different. The Democrat and Republican parties are not real parties. They lack party discipline. One cannot apply class-struggle principles to American electoral politics in such a neat, clear-cut manner.

BS: Well, comrade, I too have read some Lenin, Marx, and Luxemburg. We disagree on how to interpret them. We all want socialism but disagree on how to get there. We need unity in the struggle to achieve socialism, without allowing our differences to keep splitting us. These splits only benefit the ruling class.

Within the Russian Duma, the Bolsheviks themselves were instructed by Lenin to vote for bourgeois liberals under certain circumstances, when the alternative was a representative of the Czar or the Black Hundreds. What party we work within is not a matter of principle, but of tactics. Following your logic, Christoph, we would have to break away from the bourgeois leadership of the Democratic Party within the trade union movement. That has been tried. The independent “red unions” never won a single strike, never won a single victory, because they had to fight against the bosses and against the mainstream union at the same time. We have to change the union movement from within. We need to be wherever the masses are.

What political education does your work within the Sanders campaign provide? How do you work to expose the Democratic Party machine if you are just “fighting the right” and apologizing for Hillary Clinton? How is this not a repeat of the Jesse Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988?

BS: Bernie Sanders is a socialist leading a massive movement. That alone is a legitimate reason for our involvement. It is not the same as the Jackson campaign. I worked in that campaign, so I know. In Houston, the Communist Party established the Jackson campaign. We organized the first public demonstration where he came and spoke, at University of Houston, with 10,000 people in attendance. I am familiar with both campaigns and they really are quite different.

While working within the Democratic Party, we aim to expose it as a capitalist party. We want to expose how the DNC is trying to stop a socialist candidate. Until there is an alternative, we also seek to build an independent coalition within the Democratic Party.

I am a precinct chair for the Democratic Party for the second time. I have run for election in the Democratic Party. I would not consider myself a Democrat. I use the ballot as a tool against the ruling class. If there already were a viable left-wing party in the U.S. and Sanders ran as a Democrat, that would be a betrayal. Right now, the betrayal would be not supporting Bernie.

JS: The Sanders campaign is not a top-down, strictly controlled affair the way Jackson’s was. When Jesse realized he did not have complete control of the Rainbow Coalition, he tried to kill it. Nothing like that is happening with the Sanders campaign. “People for Bernie” and all these groups are far more independent than the Rainbow Coalition ever was.

Unlike the Jackson campaign, one of the biggest obstacles for Sanders has been winning the support of non-white voters. What do you make of the racial dynamics around the Sanders campaign?

BS: Bernie has lacked focus on how racism is central to the rule of capitalists. He treats it all as an economic question. Civil rights are the most important thing to a lot of people, so they are sympathetic to the Clinton campaign, even though Bill Clinton did much harm to the African-American community. Older black voters are more strongly tied to the Democratic Party establishment.

JS: This trend is beginning to change. Among voters of color in general, Sanders won rather heavily against Clinton in Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii. Moreover, a disproportionately large number of black people have lost the right to vote due to our racist judicial system and the voter identification laws that the Republicans have passed. I think many of these disenfranchised people would have chosen Sanders over Clinton.

Bernard, I appreciate your clarity and honesty on a number of points: Bernie is not going to run as a third party candidate, the most likely outcome of the campaign efforts surrounding Sanders will be directed towards supporting Clinton’s presidential bid, and this struggle is primarily about fighting against the right, rather than fighting for socialism. Why do so many leftists who support Sanders tend to be evasive about these facts?

BS: With regard to the last point, the issue is that socialism is not on the agenda right now. The revolutionary transformation of the state from one class to another is not on the horizon. I wish it were! Right now we are in the very first steps of building a movement that could eventually challenge state power. Communists should be honest. There are a lot of different groups on the Left orienting themselves toward Sanders in different ways. Socialist Alternative takes some positions inclined toward Sanders, but it is not clear to me exactly where they land. The Freedom Road Socialist Organization is against Sanders, but ends up supporting him anyway because they cannot ignore his campaign. You see some opportunism here and there.

Is unity always what we should strive for? In the midst of the November Revolution in Germany, it was primarily the socialists, not the Kaiser, who were responsible for killing Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

BS: The leadership of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) betrayed the working class. However, the vast majority of the workers still stood with them. Luxemburg and Liebknecht went along with the Spartacist Uprising against the SPD, even though they thought it was premature. The split between the communists and socialists in Germany was tragic. It led to the rise of fascism. Things could have gone much differently if the communists and socialists had worked together in the 1930s. Instead they attacked each other. The socialists with state power let the communists be killed, while the communists renounced the social democrats as “social fascists.” It was childish.

People on the Left who support Sanders focus on his domestic policy. Out of something like embarrassment, it seems, they tend to ignore issues of foreign policy. What do you think about Bernie’s positions on foreign policy?

JS: Within the context of the Sanders campaign, you can explain to people that we offer critical support. We want all the universal entitlements, but should he become president, we will be left-wing critics of him on the basis of his foreign policy. We want him to be more forthrightly anti-imperialist. Sanders is running as a post-World War II European social democrat. That is significantly to the right of my own politics, but in the context of mainstream American politics, he is practically an ultra-leftist. Our job is to take what is currently the left wing of the possible and push it further.

The goal of splitting the Democratic Party has been raised, but it seems to me that Sanders is foreclosing that possibility. Most people are going to vote Clinton if she gets the nomination. Do we bring people to socialism when we work with Sanders, or do we bring people to the Democrats? 

JS: Sanders is bringing in a few independents, but the bulk of his supporters are people who vote Democrat anyway. We want Sanders rather than Hillary in the general election because that would constitute a move leftward. There is also the “Bernie or Bust” phenomenon. Some Bernie supporters would vote for Clinton, but not all. If Sanders is denied the nomination only because of the superdelegates, it will expose how crappy the Democratic Party is. Sanders might then consider running as an independent. He might say, “We cannot take over the Democratic Party. We have to start laying the foundations of an independent party of the Left.”

Out of Jesse Jackson’s Democratic Party campaign of 1988, the Vermont Rainbow Coalition came together with people who supported Bernie Sanders in Burlington to form the Vermont Progressive Party, which is an independent left party. This shows how work within the Democratic Party can promote independent working-class politics. I hope something similar emerges out of the Sanders campaign.

BS: Many of those supporting Sanders are voting for the first time. Bernie, not the Democratic Party, is what inspires them. Bernie is not controlling this movement the way Jesse did with the Rainbow Coalition. These pro-Bernie organizations are like different factions of the Bernie campaign, fighting for socialism. Bernie is the figurehead, but we are the ones doing the work, donating the money, and wielding the power. We have already influenced the Sanders campaign, as the Sanders campaign has influenced Clinton.

I disagree with Jason about the likelihood of a split in either major party. Neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party is about to break up right now. We are not in such a deep crisis that these parties have ceased to be useful tools of capital.

Some say “Bernie or Bust,” but then there are also Bernie supporters protesting Trump rallies. If it is Clinton vs. Trump, even the hardcore Bernie supporters would be pushed to support Hillary in order to “fight the right.” Aside from the superdelegates, Hillary is also beating Bernie “on the ground,” through “grassroots” organizing. So, again, are we using the Democratic Party—or is the Democratic Party using us?

JS: The Democratic Party is not using me. To the people who would hold their noses and vote Hillary, I would point out that the ruling class prefers Clinton to Trump. Most elites think Trump would be an incompetent manager of the American capitalist state. Frankly, if the entire working class sat out this election, Trump would lose to Clinton, the supposed “lesser evil,” although in terms of foreign policy, she is not necessarily the lesser evil. I do not think we need to come out hard for Hillary in order to “fight the right.”

BS: I disagree. All this stuff about Trump losing is just propaganda from those who dislike how Trump is trying to redefine the Republican Party. He has unfavorable general ratings, but so does Clinton. Trump has met with the Republican leadership. He will reach an understanding with them and win the nomination. That’s a big problem, because if it is Trump against Clinton, I think Clinton will lose. This has come up during our discussions in Houston. We are trying to avoid this subject because we do not want anything to screw up the coalition we are building through the Sanders campaign. The executives already discussed this. Our view is that people can support or refuse to support Hillary as they wish. We are not going to split over it. The organization itself is more important than how we deal with this question. |P

Transcribed by Reid Kotlas and Brian Schultz


  1.  Jason Schulman, “Bernie Sanders and the Dilemma of the Democratic ‘Party,’” New Politics 15, no. 4 (Winter 2016). Available online at <http://newpol.org/print/content/bernie-sanders-and-dilemma-democratic-party>.  

  2.  Julius Jacobson, “The Duality of the Jackson Campaign,” New Politics 2, no. 2 (Summer 1988): 5–6.  

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