How to define the political philosophy of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders?
On Meet the Press on Sunday, the Democratic presidential candidate was asked by host Chuck Todd whether he was a capitalist.
“No,” Sanders responded. “I'm a democratic socialist.”
For some Republicans, that declaration is enough to disqualify Sanders from consideration, but for those in the oft-overlooked provinces to left-wing politics, whether Sanders is a bona fide socialist is the subject of endless debate.
“He isn’t an anti-capitalist! He is for reforming capitalism, not changing capitalism. He is really a lot closer in ideology to Hillary Clinton than he is to me,” said Stephen Durham, the 2012 presidential nominee of the Freedom Socialist Party. “His is the politics of a lesser evil among some very bad choices.”
“He is a progressive on the home front, but he is pretty reactionary when it comes to foreign policy,” says Gloria La Riva, the 2016 presidential nominee for the Party of Socialism and Liberation. “He supported the Israeli war against Gaza. He supports the drone bombing campaigns in other countries, which is a war crime. He has said that Cuba needs to be a democracy, but we believe Cuba already truly is a system for the people there.”
La Riva, a perennial vice-presidential candidate for the Workers World Party in the 1980s and ’90s (the PSL split from the WWP for reasons that remain largely unclear, even to its most committed partisans) said that even if Sanders won the Democratic nomination, she would continue to seek the presidency.
“I don’t think he is a socialist. He ignores socialist countries,” she said. “We agree with him that the rich should be taxed more heavily, and that the minimum wage should be higher, but we are calling for the seizure of the banks, the seizure of the health care system, the seizure of the pharmaceutical companies. We are calling for full immigrant rights, dismantling the Pentagon, bringing all of our troops home and reparations for victims of U.S. imperialism.”
Should Sanders win the presidency, she added, he would, like the other major party candidates “become the CEO of the capitalist system of the United States, one whose primary and sole objective is to maximize the power of the U.S corporations and the U.S. military.”
With the ascencion of Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour Party in Britain, socialism would seem to be on the march. But ironically, this reflects badly on Sanders in some quarters and on some issues, especially foreign policy. “I don’t think Bernie goes as far. Corbyn is consistently anti-war. He is a true progressive.”
Just as liberals in the Democratic Party are torn between going with the candidate who expresses their values (Sanders) and the one who they think can win (Clinton), so are divisions on the furthest reaches of the American left divided between the practical and the possible. On the former side is what remains of the Communist Party, which has, counterintuitively, been a reliable endorser of the eventual Democratic nominee (and which has often been criticized by other leftist parties as “Communist in Name Only.”)
“We are part of the broad anti-right coalition in this country. We work with and in the Democratic Party,” said John Bachtell, chairman of the Communist Party USA. “We are very glad that Bernie Sanders is running in the Democratic Party, and if he doesn’t win I am sure he will join with the rest of us in making sure that the Republicans are defeated in 2016.”
It is on this point that the Communist Party stands alone. For the rest of the left, running in the Democratic Party is akin to making common cause with the enemy. And so even those willing to overlook Sanders’ impurity on issues like foreign policy and immigration stop at the fact that Sanders will finally capitulate and support the Democrat.
For the left, with Corbyn and Sanders, it’s a hopeful time. “The whole Bernie Sanders phenomenon to me shows the discontent that is bubbling up and how new modes of resistance are forming,” said Phillip Locker, a spokesman for Socialist Alternative and an aide to Kshama Swant, who causes ripples in leftist circles in 2013 when she won a citywide race for Seattle City Council as an out and proud socialist.
He credited Sanders with helping Americans realize “that socialism is not a dirty word; capitalism and Wall Street are dirty words.”
But, Locker noted, “he is running in the Democratic Primary, which is rigged by corporate control and corporate masters and dominated by an establishment which is completely hostile to the working class message he is running on.”
“The Democratic Party is not the vehicle of the kind of radical change that Bernie Sanders is calling for.”
Locker says that despite their differences with Sanders on some key issues, including his slow outreach to the Black Lives Matter movement, he is working to help Sanders make as much noise as he can in the Democratic primary, and then hopes that Sanders will run on the Green Party line in the general election.
And should Sanders somehow knock off Clinton and capture the Democratic nod? To Locker, that's not a real possibility.
“If Bernie Sanders won the Democratic nomination, he would face an out-and-out revolt from the Democratic Party and their corporate masters,” he said.
Not surprisingly, the biggest cheerleader for Sanders candidacy has been the Democratic Socialist party, which happen to be the words Sanders uses to define himself. “Those who argue that Sanders touched the Democrats and thereby sullied himself should remember that any left candidate will have to form alliances with Democrats,” said Jake Altman, an executive board member of the group told a panel titled “Should Socialists Support Bernie Sanders” earlier this year at a conference sponsored by International Socialist Organization in the Boston area.
He decried “small left-wing organizations that believe it is more important to grow their activist base or stick by a third party then defend the actual interests of workers.”
If Altman and the rest of the DSA’s stance is meant to prod dueling factions of the American left to come together, it has been seen instead as an invitation to storm the barricades.
“Their general position seems to be that there are some positive things about the Sanders campaign, some positive things are better than no positive things (the usual), so let’s chalk it up to a win,” wrote Joe Monaco, the managing editor of Communique New England, a popular socialist website. But Monaco rejects that approach, calling Sanders “an imperialist capitalist shill.”
“At the end of the day, the Power of Positive Thinking isn’t usually considered a legitimate political outlook or strategy.”
Most galling to these groups is that Sanders pledged to support the eventual Democratic nominee, even if it is “Killary,” as the left-wing website Counterpunch described Clinton in an article titled “Don’t Get Berned Again! The Sanders Bribe.”
“When he supports Hillary Clinton, there are going to be millions of his supporters who are going to learn that if you remain trapped in the Democratic Party, there are rules you have to follow in order to not upset the status quo,” said Todd Chretien, a longtime organizer with the International Socialist Organization. “The entire sticking point for me of the Sanders campaign is that he is running inside with Democratic Party, a party which takes the energy and money of the progressive movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement and gives tax breaks to billionaires and money to prisons and wars.”
If Sanders ran outside of the Democratic Party, Chetien added, “he would be shocked at the millions of people who would rally to his side.”
Most Marxists opposed to this current Sanders run say that he is “sheepdogging” for the Democratic Party, which is using Sanders to “corral a resurgent left,” as Ashley Smith, a member of the editorial board of the Internationalist Socialist Review, put it at the panel.
“That’s why the Clintons see him not as a threat but as an asset,” he continued. “Instead of taking the party over, every time it has tried the left has been co-opted and neutered.”
Many active in Marxist organization still have raw memories of the 1984 Jesse Jackson campaign, which they saw as mobilizing progressive energy only to be shunted inside the Democratic tent. It is a scenario which played out again and again they say, including in the campaigns of Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton and to some degree the campaign of Barack Obama.
But should Sanders actually drop out of the Democratic Party and pursue a run on an ultra-left-wing line, he may find himself in just the kind of nominating fight he now finds himself in with Clinton.
“He could never win the nomination of our party,” said La Riva. “No matter what he says, I don’t even consider Bernie Sanders a real socialist.”
The Sanders campaign did not return a request for comment.