Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party, and Why We Don’t Have a Working Class Party (Yet)

Sanders as transforming the Democratic Party

There is a debate on the Left about the role of Bernie Sanders.  A good many (probably a majority) are enthusiastic.  Some believe that he represents a truly progressive force and brings renewed hope in reshaping the Democratic Party to become that party of the working people, the “minorities,” women, that it supposedly once was.  These folks talk about working to transform the party, call upon progressives to join and/or become active.  This position is most clearly articulated by the progressive film-maker Michael Moore.

Sanders as midwife of a new party

Then there are those who understand – or think they understand – that the Democratic Party is not and cannot become the vehicle for progressive movements but nevertheless are enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders because he “opens space” for the Left, and has, for example, made the term “socialism” acceptable and respectable, especially to the youth.  They see Sanders as someone to get behind because it is through supporting Sanders that we will get to the formation of a mass progressive Third Party that some on the Left have been long urging.  Cornel West is a prominent representative of this line of thought.

We must dispense with all illusions

There are, however, those on the Left who condemn the Democratic Party and criticize Bernie Sanders as being part of an apparatus whose function it is to prevent the formation of a true People’s Party, a party of the working class.  The true function of the Democratic Party in the two-party system (it is indeed a system) is to prevent working and oppressed people from forming a political vehicle that truly represents their interests.

The function of the Democratic Party is to be the “lesser of the two evils,” for those alienated by traditional politics.  The Democratic Party is a vital part of the apparatus of the elite, the ruling class, finance capitalists as well as other monopolies.  It is the main buffer against real, fundamental social change and of the two major parties. It is the most dangerous because it is the fox while the Republican Party is the wolf (see Malcolm X on the subject).

The charge of our being purist, utopian

Those who criticize both Sanders and the Democratic party are charged with being “purists,” not fighting in the trenches, “simply throwing stones from the sidelines” and not participating in the struggle.  “The Democratic Party is where the people are, the people we are trying to reach,” they say.

The reply of real socialists

Sanders is a New Deal liberal, not a socialist

Instead of raising consciousness, the Sanders campaign is actually contributing to illusions about the nature of the capitalist system and the political structure which protects it.  Those who praise Sanders to the skies believe he has awakened the youth, radicalized them, when just the reverse is the truth:  An increasingly radicalized youth has awakened Sanders and the forces behind him which have activated him to serve as a safety valve.  As for the claim that “socialism” has, thanks to Sanders, entered into mainstream political discourse, it is a bastardized socialism – nothing beyond some liberal reforms.  Sanders’ use of the term is paving the way, not for a socialist movement but for the manipulator politicians to herd those yearning for social justice into the safe channels of European Social-Democracy. European Social Democracy has a long record of betrayal of the fundamental interests of peace and social progress, betrayal of the fundamental interests of working and oppressed peoples.  It is neither socialist nor democratic.

“The people” are not in the Democratic Party

There is a section of the Left that has for decades proclaimed the need to be “where the people are,” and that the people were in the Democratic Party, thus distorting a quite correct idea by twisting it to mean supporting the left arm of the elite.  While many working and oppressed peoples vote for Democratic Party politicians, they are by no stretch of the imagination “in” the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party is not a mass organization.  It is a vote-getting machine financed by Big Capital, which bestirs itself during election time and is then put on the shelf until the next election, while its representatives in office spend half their time soliciting money from the fat cats and the rest of their time paying back their political debts. The Democratic Party, which is so dependent on corporate money, is not and can never be that vehicle, no matter how radical the utterances of some of its spokespeople. It is a party so unprincipled that for the sake of regaining office it is taking the lead in resurrecting the Cold War against socialists and a new McCarthyism, with all its potentially catastrophic consequences.

We don’t need a new Messiah

A further disservice of those who are so rapturous about Bernie Sanders is their emphasis on personalities on the notion that we need a political Messiah, an idea embraced by the Right as well.  We, on the other hand, emphasize the need and the ability of the masses to think critically about matters affecting their own basic interests, of figuring out not only who their enemies are, but who are their real friends, as opposed to those who pose as their benefactors but who are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Working class organization is the task of the workers themselves

We who criticize Sanders from the Left are not “sitting on the sidelines” but bringing our message to working-class and oppressed communities, trying to help them understand that they have the ability to govern themselves, that they need their own political vehicle, a political party that genuinely represents their interests.  The masses are absolutely capable of organization, of building a real People’s Party, and we are committed to helping them in this process.

“So where is this working-class party you want us to join?”

It is certainly fair for those who agree with us on the need to leave Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party to ask, “Okay, where are we supposed to sign up?” The short answer is that there is no party (yet). And there are many reasons for this.

Tactics of divide and conquer by capitalists

The most important weapon of the capitalists is that of divide and conquer, and in keeping the working class divided, their most powerful means is the system of white supremacy.  Racism not only splits the various components of the working class from one another but nurtures political backwardness, generally of European-American (white) workers, and to a lesser extent Latino workers.  And because African American workers experience an almost universal racism among white workers, they view their oppression and exploitation almost exclusively as a manifestation of racial bigotry, rather than as a vital component of capitalist rule.   Furthermore, in the south, where for a long time African Americans predominated, fascist-like conditions suppressed Black political expression.

The internal workings of the Democratic Party

Another barrier to the formation of an independent party has to do with its structure.  The U.S. electoral system, in contrast to that of many other countries, is based on winner-take -all.  Minority voters obtain no representation. Then there are the difficulties of an independent party getting on the ballot.  Control of the electoral machinery is in the hands of the two parties, as is control of the debates.  But most important has been the flexibility of the Democratic Party in adopting just enough of a watered-down version of some of the demands of the discontented to damp down protest movements.  Further back in history, Democratic Party machine politics in urban centers was based on rewarding those who voted the “right way” by dispensing food and other necessities.  Thus, tying poverty-stricken communities to the party.

Certain unique features of U.S. history

Availability of land

There was relatively easy access to land (for white families) that served to drain some urban discontent.  There was a constant immigration flow which created obstacles to working-class unity because of ethnic divisions, including language divisions. And there was modest social mobility, if not for the immigrants themselves, at least for their children.

Unions have been apolitical or have supported the Democratic Party

With the exception of the Socialist party, large unions did not strive for a working class party. This was true of the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor, and the anarchist Industrial Workers of the World (for different reasons). The AFL the major labor federation, was organized around skilled male native workers.  A more radical  CIO, which grew rapidly in the Great Depression, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Communists, succumbed to McCarthyism after World War II and along with the AFL, became “business unions” with an agreement with bosses not to strike, in exchange for more money and better working conditions. The heads of unions grew wealthier and formed alliances with the Democratic Party. The growth of US imperialism succeeded in corrupting union officialdom and a segment of the better-off workers with political and economic crumbs.

Nationalism overtakes class consciousness in both world wars

In both World Wars socialism failed miserably to convince workers that they had no fatherland. Workers united with capitalists, and class consciousness took a back seat. Furthermore, unlike the rest of the participants, war brought not devastation but prosperity.

The Liberalism of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Popular Front

During his presidency FDR promoted important social reforms, having been pushed by mass struggles led by both the Communists and militant unions. Consequently the Communist Party abandoned trying to build a mass working-class party and became loyal supporters of the Democratic Party, of which it has remained ever since, with the exception of a brief and unsuccessful effort after World War II, to create a party led by Henry Wallace, former Vice-President and Secretary of Agriculture around a peace program.

New opportunities

The current situation presents very favorable opportunities for laying the foundations of a genuine People’s Party.  It is not my purpose here to lay out all the changes in the economic and political scenes which are encouraging for those seeking fundamental social change.  Suffice it to conclude that real possibilities exist, that a significant segment of the people are prepared to support an independent party of the working and oppressed peoples. Those of us who have been championing that idea need to start the process of transforming hope into reality.

• First published in Planning Beyond Capitalism

Joe G. Kaye has been a student of and participant in a variety of social justice organizations and causes for over half a century. His writings have appeared in Haiti Progress, The Amsterdam News, The National Guardian and other periodicals. He has conducted workshops on History and Political Theory with an emphasis on the history of African Americans and the centrality of racism. Joe Kaye was married to a great and militant African American poet-novelist, Sarah E. Wright, and was profoundly shaped by that relationship. Read other articles by Joe G..