SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 230 July-August 2019

Bernie Sanders and a new workers’ party: an exchange

Looking at Tony Saunois’ article in the previous edition of Socialism Today (Bernie Sanders and the Road to a Mass Workers’ Party, Issue No.229, June 2019) there is a demand in it which in my opinion does not engage with the layers socialists in the US are trying to reach.

This is in the paragraph where Tony writes: “Rather than directing his supporters into the Democratic Party, Sanders should be taking the steps to build a mass alternative to the Democrats and Republicans”.

So far, so good, but what does the next part mean? “A convention of his supporters could reach out to the organised working class in the trade unions, workplaces and community organisations, and appeal to all those who wish to fight for an alternative to Trump, the Democratic corporate elite and capitalism. Such a convention could lay the base for a new party, rooted among the working class of all races, genders and sexual orientation who are actively participating in the struggles taking place. It would need to set up a party that is democratically controlled, with accountable leadership, and acting as representatives of all working people”.

All of this is, in a sense, correct. But there is a real, concrete question of timing, which as we know, is the ABC of the correct application of what Marxists term the transitional programme.

The problem is that the Sanders campaign is already in full swing and is calling on groups of supporters all over the country to self-organise, which opens up opportunities for socialists to engage with these supporters. But we would be cutting ourselves off from this layer if we were to make the proposal that Tony puts forward, and try to build a “convention of his supporters… lay[ing] the base for a new party”. In other words, stop doing what Sanders is asking them to do, which is to build a giant list of supporters, before the battle for the Democratic Party presidential nomination has even been joined.

So when Tony says “such a convention could lay the base for a new party, rooted among the working class of all races, genders and sexual orientation who are actively participating in the struggles taking place” it’s a propaganda point, not a real proposal. We can say “could lay the base” all we want, but at this point it won’t. If called right now, in this moment, it would end up being a tiny meeting of sectarians fighting each other over the fine print of their non-existent fantasy party, and there are already more than enough such meetings.

Socialists should be going out and organising fresh layers of activists so that we can contribute these forces to the building of the mass party that Tony is talking about. But we cannot build a mass party just by conjuring it up at a moment when those forces have not yet experienced the process of the next twelve or fourteen months. Such an attempt really would fall into the category of ultra-left adventurism which would build nothing, but would confuse and demoralise those that we reach.

From a Chicago reader

A response from Tony Saunois

The letter from a Chicago reader poses important issues about the role of revolutionary socialists when intervening in movements such as the Sanders campaign.

The task now posed for the working class and socialists in the USA is the need to build a new workers’ party outside the Democrats and not seek to try and win or change the capitalist Democratic Party. This is the main issue I raised in the article, of Sanders mistakenly not breaking from the Democratic Party, along with the weakness of the programme he is advocating in not breaking with capitalism.

The substantive criticism of the Chicago letter is that the time is not right to pose the need for Sanders to call a convention of his supporters as a step towards building a new party of working people, and that to raise this demand would be going against the mood or ‘consciousness’ of his supporters or where the campaign is at.

This goes to the nub of the issues posed. If the Chicago reader agrees that it is correct to demand that Sanders should run independently and build a new workers’ party then, surely, the question of Sanders taking the steps needed to begin to do this must also be posed. If not, what is really being said? If questions like calling a convention are omitted, is it serious to say that Sanders should run independently, break with the Democrats but not propose anything that he should do concretely? We think not!

The question of timing is important in politics as the letter says, but it then draws the wrong conclusion. Leave it until later, it says. Implicitly, this is really saying don’t pose the issue of the need for a new party, this should also be left until later. When these issues should be left to we are not told. However, delaying raising the need for Sanders to run independently, and therefore taking the necessary steps to prepare for this, means leaving it until the Democratic primary campaign is underway.

This does not mean that revolutionary socialists should intervene in Sanders campaign activity necessarily raising this as a slogan or the main demand, but surely it is necessary to pose the tasks we think are needed in a friendly and skilful manner to those mobilised in support of Sanders with a view to convincing them. In a careful way that does mean criticising Sanders, including the limitations of what he is asking his supporters to do. As explained in the article, he is conducting his campaign with a view to taking them into the Democratic Party in order to save it! Not by shrill denunciation but in a skilful way, revolutionary socialists have a responsibility to warn that this road is a dead end.

Waiting until Sanders is fighting the primaries before raising such issues will only lead to confusion. It is likely that a big layer of his supporters have high expectations that he can secure the Democratic nomination. We have a responsibility to warn against this and demand that Sanders takes a different road to avoid losing another opportunity to build a new party of working people as, unfortunately, he did in 2016.

The reader from Chicago argues that Sanders will not call a convention and, therefore, it is merely a propaganda point. He argues that, should a convention take place now, it would merely be a tiny meeting of sectarians. He seems to mix up what we argue Sanders should do with what the small forces of revolutionary socialists should do. Nowhere in the article is it implied that revolutionary socialists should call such a convention when they clearly do not have the basis of support to do so.

However, is the reader really suggesting that, should Sanders make such a call and fight for it, he would not attract the support of tens of thousands? If Sanders boldly went onto the offensive, explaining the need for an alternative to the Democratic Party and the need for workers to have their own party and linking it to his bid for the presidency, he would get a mass response. Just because he is not prepared to take such a step does not mean that socialists should not explain that this is necessary and try to convince others of this.

The task is not to adapt to the opportunist pressures which arise in the mobilisations in support of Sanders. The task is to patiently explain the programme and steps necessary to take the movement forward. In this case, to lay the basis for building a new workers’ party as an alternative to the dead end of attempting to ‘reclaim’ the capitalist Democratic Party. This does not mean not intervening in his movement but doing so skilfully, raising the idea of socialism and the need for a workers’ party to fight for it.

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