By Mike Talavera
Entering the sixth week of his 2020 campaign, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has raised over $18 million, according to a Tuesday announcement. This momentum demonstrates that Sanders intends to make good on his promise and finish what he started in 2016, what he calls “political revolution” but what is actually political theater, a hoax. Sanders speaks to the suffering of the masses, and his message has appealed to many activists and workers desperate for liberation, but his ideology of democratic socialism will only serve to legitimize US imperialism and further entrench the oppression and exploitation of the world proletariat. Whether or not he wins the election, Sanders has threatened the cause of revolution by reenergizing followers of one of its principal enemies, social democracy.
Even though he ultimately lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton in 2016, Sanders outperformed her among young people and rural residents. Most people in the country passively boycott the bourgeois elections, but that won’t stop Sanders from targeting the same young activists and sections of the working class again in 2020.
Sanders has been credited by the mainstream media for pushing the Democratic Party to the left with his prior presidential campaign, with other democratic socialists like US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stating that Sanders inspired them to run for office. Many of Sanders’s 2020 competitors are campaigning on issues he brought up in 2016, such as Medicare for all.
While running again in the Democratic Primary, Sanders does not officially belong to any political party. Instead, he has helped set up a nonprofit organization called Our Revolution whose mission is to endorse and support more democratic socialist types for office.
As a way of demarcating himself from other Democratic candidates, Sanders popularized the fundraising tactic of primarily soliciting small donations, and Our Revolution has carried forward this strategy in its other campaigns.
In 2016, Sanders had raised a total of $234.3 million from small donors by the time he exited the race in July of that year. Clinton, on the other hand, did not shy away from large donations and raised over $1.4 billion, nearly six times as much as Sanders.
Not only did a focus on small donations likely cost Sanders the Democratic Primary, it also has not shielded Our Revolution from corporate interests, namely its own. It may not be backed by capital in the same way that a Political Action Committee (PAC) is, but Our Revolution operates as a nonprofit corporation under a board of directors and does not have to publicly disclose the amounts or origins of its received donations according to its tax status as a 501(c)(4).
Our Revolution’s corporate structure is an undemocratic bureaucracy where the “political revolution” takes a backseat to individualism, as with the nonprofit’s in-fighting that leaked out to the mainstream press. In early 2018, Our Revolution President Nina Turner attempted to appoint her friend Tezlyn Figaro, someone who has publicly supported President Donald Trump and applauded his travel ban on Fox News, as her chief of staff but was shut down by the board’s executive committee.
The board compromised by letting Turner bring Figaro on as her paid personal consultant for a few months, but after further exposure of Figaro’s far-right views Turner was forced to remove her from the payroll. “I do have purview over staffing, and that’s just it,” Turner had told Politico in defense of hiring a right-winger.
After Sanders officially conceded to Clinton in 2016, any distinction between his campaign and Clinton’s disappeared as he fully endorsed her for president. While a significant minority of Sanders supporters ended up voting for Trump, the fact remains that 74% of those who voted for Sanders in the Democratic Primary voted for Clinton in the national election, many of whom would not have voted at all if they hadn’t been mobilized by Sanders. Still, those Sanders supporters who flipped to Trump illustrate the desire of the masses to break with business-as-usual. The bourgeoisie exploits this desperation by offering up the false choice of social democracy or fascism, both of which guard the ruling class.
No matter what reforms Sanders and his followers will be able to achieve in Congress or through the White House in the future, when the chips are down Sanders and his closest followers have proven that they will fall in line with the Democratic Party, making any of their legislative gains subject to reversal in the interests of party unity against the Democrats’ bourgeois counterpart, the Republican Party.
Just as Sanders falls in with the Democrats when push comes to shove, the two bourgeois parties put aside their differences when it comes to uniting under the flag of imperialism. As one of many examples, Democrats and Republicans alike voted to authorize the US military invasion of Iraq in 2002.
On the campaign trail, Sanders has touted his vote against the joint resolution as a defiant act of resistance against the greedy and unethical ambitions of the Bush administration. What Sanders does not highlight is how he has voted to fund these imperialist wars, including the war on Iraq. He has defended these actions by citing provisions included in the funding bills that support veterans or deliver humanitarian relief.
This legislation, the kind that throws pennies at suffering ex-soldiers or victims of hurricanes while funneling billions to terrorize and occupy oppressed nations abroad, exemplifies the politics of Sanders. He wants to appease his base with a higher minimum wage and better healthcare while perpetuating US imperialism and its domination of the rest of the world.
The US government did not become the world’s greatest imperialist superpower because the wrong people were in office. Deindustrialization, outsourcing, and the increased export of finance capital have been hollowing out the productive capacity of the US for decades, making imperialist war the only political recourse for this capitalist state to maintain its global hegemony and to repartition the world in pursuit of profit.
The last time he ran, Sanders validated the reactionary Democrats and US imperialism as well as started a nonprofit that has sponsored others to follow his phony politics. This time around, his campaign has even more potential to play cover for imperialism in the name of domestic social welfare policies.
The “Socialist” Identity
“Our campaign is about transforming our country and creating a government based on the principles of economic, social, racial, and environmental justice,” Sanders said in his campaign announcement video.
Even as he makes use of this socialist-sounding language, Sanders has publicly distanced himself from the stand-alone label of “socialist,” placating anti-communist fear-mongering in the process. In a March interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Sanders went a step further and disassociated his agenda from “the left” in general.
At the same time, the “socialist” label is embraced by one of Sanders’s largest support networks, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), as illustrated by an email sent to DSA members after Sanders’s announcement last week.
“DSA could play an important role in supporting Sanders,” the email reads, “both by helping Sanders win the Democratic Party primary and go on to defeat Trump in the general election, and by growing DSA as a serious, independent, socialist pole in the broader Sanders movement.”
Whether it’s Sanders depoliticizing his “political revolution” on the campaign trail or the DSA fancying themselves socialists, these democratic socialists have reduced the meaning of “socialist” to another identity in the Democratic Party’s bag of tricks and armed the proponents of revisionism.
Bereft of any meaningful links with the masses, the Democratic Party has for the past two decades resorted to peddling identity politics to keep its sinking ship afloat. The multiple identities of the 2020 Sanders campaign chairs align with this strategy, which include Our Revolution President Nina Turner, US Representative Ro Khanna, Puerto Rico Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, and even capitalist Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.
The “socialist” identity, as tailored by Sanders and his camp, can be adopted by anyone who shares certain public policy positions: universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage, eco-friendly regulations, etc.
This conception of what a socialist is was first crushed over a hundred years ago by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who fought fiercely to establish socialism as a science, as the study of class struggle that can be applied, theorized, and developed rather than simply held as a collection of utopian beliefs.
Despite Marx and Engels’s best efforts, there have been those on the left who have wanted to reverse the formulation of scientific socialism, twisting and deforming it for their own ends by means of revisionism. Throughout the past century, revisionism has not only benefited opportunists like Sanders for electoral pursuits, but it has resulted in the restoration of capitalism in socialist countries or even worse accelerated the rise of fascism.
One of the first prominent revisionists was German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein, who popularized the slogan, “the movement is everything, the ultimate aim is nothing,” prioritizing the mobilization of the masses over a proletarian political line.
Vladimir Lenin was the most outstanding of Bernstein’s critics, persistently condemning Bernstein’s bad ideas and attacking revisionism in general.
“To determine its conduct from case to case,” Lenin writes in 1908, “to adapt itself to the events of the day and to the chopping and changing of petty politics, to forget the primary interests of the proletariat and the basic features of the whole capitalist system, of all capitalist evolution, to sacrifice these primary interests for the real or assumed advantages of the moment—such is the policy of revisionism.”
The “socialist” identity as sold by Sanders pragmatically advocates for whatever progressive policies are in vogue, dismissing the primary interests of the proletariat, the class to end all classes, as unrealistic delusions. It is the ignorance or denial of class struggle that explains why the Sanders “socialist” may criticize the profit motive inherent to capitalism but stops short of analyzing the class contradictions that shape and drive our society.
In his campaign announcement video, Sanders talks about “taking on” the special interests that dominate mainstream politics, in particular, “Wall Street, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the fossil fuel industry, the military industrial complex, the private prison industry, and the large multinational corporations.”
In a CBS interview aired shortly after his announcement, journalist John Dickerson asked Sanders about his feelings toward these special interests. “The revolution you’re talking about,” Dickerson said, “does it require making a moral case about wealth in America, in other words, not just that [wealth] shouldn’t be concentrated, but that the people [who have that] concentrated wealth are bad people?”
“I wouldn’t [say] it that way,” Sanders replied. “There are some bad people who are poor, there are bad people who are rich, there are bad people who are middle class […] You have three people who own more wealth than the bottom half of American society! That’s the issue. It’s not those three people, it is that we have allowed that to take place.”
This analysis posits that the oppression and exploitation suffered by millions across the US is the result of the masses “allowing” it to happen by failing to elect the right candidates.
Sanders will lean into morally judging the rich depending on his audience, but he always depicts the unequal and unjust US society as a scale that is off-balance but not broken, one that could be readjusted with some counter-weights.
Once again, this “socialist” conception of society has been outdated since the 19th century when Marx and Engels theorized capitalist society as the outcome of class struggle.
“The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones,” the 1848 Communist Manifesto reads. “Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”
Sanders obscures this contradiction of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, painting a deceptively holistic picture of capitalist society. Peering through the goggles of Sanders’s virtual reality, one can watch as millionaires and billionaires are brought to heel through taxation and regulation by the state and then, like prodigal children, welcomed back into the family of US democracy. The lies of democratic socialism paint a colorful yet outlandish sight of rich and poor gathered around the same proverbial table, living in relative harmony under a progressive tax system.
Take the goggles off, and the bright future becomes a dystopian one. Higher taxes collected by the bourgeois US government, no matter how progressive, would only serve to finance and strengthen US imperialism. The US working class may receive some temporary concessions under Sanders, but those gains will come at the expense of the international working class.
Sanders supporters may express disbelief at the insinuation that a Sanders presidency could fortify imperialism. They may counter that Sanders has a peaceful view on foreign policy and supports humanitarian aid.
In 2011, Sanders co-sponsored a Senate resolution “strongly condemning the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya.” Sanders was reluctant to call for outright military intervention, but that didn’t stop him from drumming up support for a “humanitarian” intervention.
Many others joined the call for humanitarian intervention in Libya, and that pretext was exploited by then-Secretary of State Clinton and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to completely destroy the nation of Libya, literally splitting it in two. Examples of humanitarian logic serving as justification for imperialist invasion are littered throughout modern history.
If Sanders were to be elected, it is assured that his humanitarian aims would act as the crosshairs for the guns and bombs of US imperialism. Sanders talks tough about capitalism, but he fails to recognize the capitalist class itself, and in his obfuscation of that class he serves the ruling class’s interests.
Unlike Sanders’s characterizations, the difference between capitalists and working people has less to do with how much money they have and more to do with how they relate to the way commodities are made. The bourgeoisie own the factories, the machines, the software, and all the tools necessary to produce the things people want and need, and the proletariat, under capitalism, are compelled to work for the bourgeoisie with these tools in order to survive.
A capitalist is not the same as a worker who just has more money. The capitalist is the opposite of the worker; they belong to antagonistic social classes. No amount of taxes or progressive reforms can reconcile them.
In human history, the relationship between the oppressors and the oppressed has always unfolded violently, sometimes insidiously and other times openly. The conflict between the bourgeois and the proletariat cannot be mitigated peacefully through the bourgeois state as Sanders claims, nor is that state the instrument of all US citizens. It serves the ruling class, the bourgeoisie. It has been constructed through the means of production that the owning class owns, and it is animated by that same capital. Serving the working class goes against the nature of the bourgeois state. In our time period, its nature follows the logic of imperialism, no matter who is president.
The Danger of Social Fascism
Far from the working-class hero he has portrayed himself to be, Sanders is a shill for the Democratic Party who has stripped socialism of its theory and history in an attempt to lead the rebellious masses down the dead-end of electoral politics. In the same way that Trump is not an outright fascist but has encouraged the rise of fascist elements, Sanders is not a full-fledged social democrat but has stimulated a renewed interest in social democracy.
The popularity of both fascism and social democracy is the direct result of imperialism, where economic crises are more frequent and volatile. These ideologies both serve to protect the rule of the bourgeoisie from the increasingly organized and outraged masses.
Fascism and social democracy both seek a corporatization of the state, where democratic parliamentarism is negated in order to preserve capitalist order. A disturbing example of social democracy keeping the peace for the bourgeoisie is the prelude to Nazi Germany. In March 1929, social democrat and Berlin police chief Karl Zörgiebel instituted a ban on public demonstrations out of fear of the growing unrest of the German masses. In defiance of this moratorium, the Communist Party of Germany organized and led a large march on May 1, International Workers’ Day. In response, Zörgiebel ordered a crackdown which resulted in more than 30 deaths and over 200 injuries. It is around this time that the term “social fascism” began to be used to describe social democracy.
This episode bares resemblance to the more recent rise and fall of DSA leader and police union organizer Danny Fetonte. A member of the Austin DSA branch, Fetonte was elected to the organization’s National Political Committee in 2017 but resigned after he failed to conceal his collaborations with police.
The ideologies of democratic socialism and social democracy compromise with the capitalist class, so the use of police force against those who would seek to overthrow capitalism is condoned. Similarly, Sanders is willing to accept the devastation wreaked by US imperialism if it permits him to enact a few progressive policies.
Sanders’s homage to the tenets of this spectrum of ideology will likely lead to the appearance of more social democratic organizations, and for revolutionaries and activists, this development should be as concerning as the rise of the far right.
Die-hard Sanders’s supporters who advocate for social democracy must be opposed in the strictest terms, but some of those drawn to Sanders have some desire for real radical change and want the widespread suffering of the masses to end, but their knowledge of socialism is limited to what they have heard from Sanders.
Contrary to what Sanders claims, a political revolution cannot be carried out by one bourgeois electoral campaign or even multiple campaigns, especially not under imperialism. “A revolution is not a dinner party,” Mao Zedong wrote in 1927. “It cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
Choosing between these contrasting definitions of revolution offered by Sanders and Mao cannot be a matter of personal preference. Revolution is not whatever one wants it to be, peaceful or otherwise. It is a grand historical process, but one that can be studied scientifically and guided through an understanding of how society changes.
The ideology that has developed out of this scientific process is Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, and it is principally Maoism that instructs the leaders of the working class today. For first-time readers of Incendiary, please reference our articles for examples of what Maoist organizing looks like in the US. The work and successes of the revolutionary organizations covered by Incendiary expose the treachery of Sanders and other reformers who spread the falsehood that politics should be confined to the ballot box.
It is the responsibility of Communists to not simply call out the revisionism of Bernie Sanders and the dangers of social democracy. Like fascism, social democracy must be confronted physically anywhere it rears its head!