Can Bernie 2020 Advance the Struggle for Socialism?On the History and Contradictions of Reformist Electoral Politics
Written by Orlando Torres
The 2020 presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders has generated a lot of enthusiasm among liberal progressives and a significant segment of self-described democratic socialists. The latter are being led by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and publications like Jacobin magazine, which dedicated its entire Winter 2019 issue to making the case that the Sanders campaign is a vehicle to advance the struggle for socialism.
In articles like “The Exercise of Power” by Bhaskar Sunkara, “The State we Need” by David Broder, “Wielding the Imperial Presidency” by Meagan Day, and “A Plan for Socialism in America” by Peter Gowan, DSA and Jacobin have articulated three lines of argument for the Left to throw its full support behind Bernie 2020. First, they contend that the campaign represents the most promising and realistic prospect for the US Left to “exercise power” and implement a set of social-democratic reforms (single-payer healthcare, free college tuition, a $15 per hour minimum wage, a Green New Deal, etc.), while “depriving the Right of strength”. Second, they argue that winning elections and thereby passing reforms is necessary to create the political conditions that will allow for more radical struggles in the future. And third, they make the case that, even if Bernie fails to win, his campaign and platform will nonetheless serve to raise socialist consciousness on a mass scale. We strongly disagree with each of these theses and proceed to refute them. The first two sections of this article examine the historical role of reformism in the implementation of reforms and counter-reforms under capitalism, while drawing on the work of Marxist historian Robert Brenner. The third section uses this historical analysis to evaluate the Bernie 2020 campaign from a socialist perspective.
How reforms are actually (and have always been) won
The main appeal of the Sanders campaign is, undoubtedly, his platform of common-sense, social-democratic reforms, which, if implemented, would indeed improve the material and political conditions of working people in the US. But what the DSA strategy erroneously and ahistorically assumes is that electing politicians with “progressive” or social-democratic platforms is the primary method, or at least a central element, of a strategy to win reforms. This is a classic reformist assumption, which, in the words of Robert Brenner, fails
“to distinguish between the immediate legislators of reforms and the creators of the mass political offensives which actually made reform legislation possible. They characteristically, and disastrously, neglect the tumultuous mass movements which transformed, willy-nilly, what hitherto had been do-nothing reformist politicians into agents of social and political change.”
As Brenner demonstrates in his classic essay “The Paradox of Social Democracy: The American Case”, it is the interaction between two fundamental factors that determines the conditions of possibility for progressive reforms within crisis-prone capitalism: 1) a shift in the balance of class forces resulting from a surge in mass, militant working class mobilizations that challenge capital and the state through direct action in the workplaces and the streets; and 2) the cycles of expansion and crisis of the capitalist economy. On the one hand, mass working class movements spark both a transformation of political consciousness and the disruption of and threats to capitalist profits needed to extract reforms from the ruling class. On the other hand, the boom and bust cycles of capitalism (the conditions of capitalist profitability) determine how fiercely the capitalist class can be expected to resist movements’ pressure for reforms. When the economy is booming and profitability is high, it can be in capitalists’ interests to make concessions in order to avoid political instability and disruptions in production and profits. But during times of economic contraction and low profits, reforms are rarely granted without extremely high levels of working class organization and militancy. Moreover, under the capitalist mode of production, full employment and the expansion of the welfare state are dependent on high levels of investment and tax revenue, which in turn depend on economic growth and capitalist profitability. Thus, in periods of crisis, which are inherent to capitalism and thus cannot be prevented by a capitalist state, social-democratic governments become agents of the ruling class by restoring profits and growth through austerity and anti-worker measures.
This has been borne out by historical developments over the past 100 years. As Brenner’s essay describes in detail, there have been two major waves of reforms in the United States—one in the 1930s and 40s and a second one in the 1960s. These reforms only became possible because of an explosion of independent working class and popular movements that were oriented towards direct action and away from electoralism and the social forces of reformism: the labor bureaucracies, the middle class leaderships of progressive organizations, and Democratic Party politicians. In the 1930s, there was an unprecedented wave of militant labor strikes and mobilizations (La Voz has written about these in previous issues), which developed outside and against the reformist, bureaucratic leadership of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). After passively tolerating a brutal anti-union offensive in the 1920s, the AFL leadership undermined the militant strikes of 1933 by pushing unions to get workers back to work and to rely on Roosevelt’s mediation boards, which almost always sided with employers. Yet the dynamism of the movement came from increasingly militant and organized rank-and-file workers, who were willing to break with the union bureaucracy and went on to form the United Auto Workers (UAW) and eventually the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as an alternative to the AFL. During this time, the strength of the labor movement was such that it won significant concessions (i.e. the Wagner and Social Security Acts), even during an economic depression. Nonetheless, the labor bureaucracy and progressive politicians like Franklin D. Roosevelt did everything in their power to contain labor militancy and channel it towards the Democratic Party, which, despite overwhelming parliamentary hegemony, went on to preside over a series of anti-labor laws (most notably the Smith-Connally Act of 1943 and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947) that paved the way for the sharp decline of the labor movement in subsequent decades.
In the 1960s, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements relied primarily on direct-action to challenge racist and economic structures, sparking a wave of militant organizing that included major mobilizations by students, women, and anti-imperialists. On the basis of this real challenge to ruling class interests, there was a corresponding rise in consciousness (both liberal and radical), which, coupled with the unprecedented prosperity and capitalist profitability that characterized the period from 1945 to 1970, enabled a series of reforms during the Johnson and Nixon administrations (i.e. the Civil Rights Acts, the Poverty Programs, the Environmental Protection Agency, and so on). Once again, however, the social forces of reformism—in this case the leadership of official Black organizations like the NAACP— not only did everything they could to channel the energy of the black struggle into electoralism by organizing a voter registration drive to mobilize black voters for Lyndon Johnson, but also openly denounced the militant Black Power movement as “the father of hate and the mother of violence”. As movements declined under state repression and as the capitalist economy went into crisis in the early 1970s, capital launched an all-out attack on working class gains with the active complicity of the Democratic Party, which has since failed to pass a single meaningful social reform.
In short, the labor bureaucracies and the middle class leaderships of progressive organizations of the oppressed have historically worked to contain and become an obstacle to the development of militant, direct-action movements while seeking to tame them and channel their energy into bourgois electoral politics. At the same time, reformist politicians have benefited electorally from the consciousness shifts generated by radical movements and occasionally, under the right balance between pressure from below and capitalist profitability, have acted as the “immediate legislators” of reforms that became possible through militant class struggle—that is, through methods that reformism directly or indirectly undermines. Indeed, reformist politicians that take political credit for reforms won from below have used these legislative victories to create the political and electoral dependency that weakens movements and paves the way for counter-reforms.
The role of reformism in counter-reforms
The remaining historical question is what role have the social forces of reformism played during periods of low movement militancy and/or economic downturn, which are not conducive for winning reforms. Again, the historical record is illustrative. In the United States, since the end of the post-war boom in the early 1970s, the so-called Left wing of the Democratic party, the established bureaucratic leadership of labor unions, and the middle class leaderships of “progressive” organizations (e.g. MoveOn, Credo, Indivisible, etc.) have been entirely unable to lead an effective resistance (inside or outside state institutions) to the wave of capitalist attacks that have brought about historically high levels of wealth concentration along with precarity, declining real wages, and low union density.
As a rule, when reformist governments are in power during periods of economic downturn and/or low movement militancy, they not only fail to implement their own program but actually launch attacks on workers in an effort to restore capitalist profitability. This was evident when labor and social-democratic governments in countries like England, France, Spain, and even Sweden implemented cuts and austerity policies in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. But there are more recent examples, such as the Syriza government in Greece, which rose to power on a radical anti-austerity platform in 2015 only to implement a humiliating package of austerity policies imposed by the European Union. Perhaps most dramatically, the recent collapse of the so-called “Pink Tide” of governments in Latin America completed a full cycle of reformist politics: a wave of militant, anti-neoliberal social movements generated a shift in the balance of class forces in the 1990s and early 2000s; reformist leaders and politicians managed to channel rising radical consciousness and movement energy towards bourgeois democratic institutions, winning landslide electoral victories; during a period of economic boom (2002-2014), when the international prices of commodities such as oil, gold, and coal were extraordinarily high, reformist governments rode the wave of growth and militant movements and implemented a number of moderate reforms while maintaining capitalist profitability; when commodity prices predictably collapsed and the boom turned into bust, these same reformist governments—from Dilma Rousseff in Brazil to Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela—rolled back previously won reforms and implemented the type of anti-worker measures (e.g. cuts to pensions and social services, attacks on collective bargaining, repression of popular mobilizations) that they were elected to reverse.
Why do these reformist leaders, ostensibly committed to advancing the interests of the working class, become agents of the capitalist class during periods of economic downturn and/or low movement activity? One part of the answer has been summed up by Brenner, who explains in ‘ “… the social forces that dominate reformist politics, above all the trade union officialdom and the social democratic party politicos … are not themselves part of the working class”, despite depending for their livelihoods on organizations sustained by the working class.
“… above all they are off the shop floor […] [and] find their material base, their livelihood, in the trade union or party organization itself […] So long as the organization is viable, they can have a viable form of life and a reasonable career […] Since militant resistance to capital can provoke a response from capital and the state that threatens the financial condition or the very existence of the organization […] The trade unions and reformist parties […] [seek] to ward off capital by coming to terms with it.”
The second part of the answer has to do with strategy. As mentioned above, during periods of economic downturn, capitalists will not easily concede reforms that further diminish their profits and they can be expected to withhold investments (i.e. a capital strike) and create economic chaos to impose their class interests. Hence, as a rule, reformist governments are confronted with two options: 1) implementing anti-worker austerity policies to restore capitalist profitability and economic growth or 2) actually challenging capitalist property relations. The problem is that to successfully do the latter—to challenge and defeat the owners of the means of production—requires a level of working class self-organization, consciousness, and militancy that cannot be built through electoralism. It requires a gradual accumulation of direct-action struggles that undermine the legitimacy of the capitalist state and therefore threaten the viability of both short-term electoral campaigns and reformist governments that rely on state institutions. Thus, even if reformist leaders administering the capitalist state were to gather the political will to push for socialism in moments of crisis (which they generally won’t do for the reasons laid out by Brenner), the working class would most likely be unprepared for that level of struggle. As we will see, the strategies required to “gain control of the capitalist state” through bourgois elections are generally in contradiction with those needed to build mass militancy and socialist consciousness.
There are two key lessons socialists and workers ought to draw from these historical experiences. First, reformism and electoral politics don’t actually win reforms in favor of the working class. Rather, militant, direct-action movements that organize independently of and often directly against the political forces of reformism can force concessions from the ruling class by generating disruptions and consciousness shifts that alter the political landscape. These concessions are often (though not always) legislated by reformist politicians, but they can only be won through independent struggle. Second, winning reforms and electing reformist politicians to office does not, in and of itself, create conditions for a more profound challenge to capitalism. To the extent that the energy of radical movements is channeled into bourgeois electoral politics and away from the militant direct action that won reforms in the first place; and to the extent that workers are successfully pressured by reformist governments in power to contain their struggles within limits acceptable to capital, the conditions of possibility for radical change will deteriorate rather than improve. In fact, in periods of crisis, reformist governments can be expected to launch their own attacks on workers to restore growth and profitability.
What role can a Bernie 2020 campaign (or presidency) play in the struggle for socialism?
Given the historical role of reformism, one of the key questions for the Left in the United States is how to relate to the Bernie 2020 campaign. While for socialists there are clear advantages to a high-profile campaign that can speak to millions of workers, there are also major political costs to be paid by running in a vehemently capitalist party, limiting our program to social-democratic reforms, and embracing an electorally-centered strategy.
It is undeniable that the Bernie 2016 campaign had a major impact on US politics. Its fundraising machine and massive media exposure helped popularize a series of common-sense, social-democratic reforms like single-payer healthcare, free higher education, raising the minimum wage, universal childcare, progressive taxation, and environmental reforms. In doing this, the campaign raised expectations about what policies are politically viable and built a new electoral base that explicitly rejects neoliberal orthodoxy and openly challenges the Democratic Party’s right-wing establishment. Moreover, Sanders’ self-identification as a “Democratic Socialist” led to an explosion in the membership of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which made supporting Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential bids its top priority. Thus the leadership of DSA and its flagship publication, Jacobin, have framed the Bernie 2020 campaign as an indispensable, historical opportunity to win major reforms, lay the groundwork for more advanced struggles, and (even if the election is lost) to raise socialist consciousness.
Many workers and activists looking for an alternative to establishment politics are understandably attracted to this vision. Unfortunately, it is built upon a flawed understanding of capitalism, the state, and the dynamics of class struggle, which makes it not only inadequate but ultimately counterproductive to the struggle for socialism. First, Bernie Sanders is not and has never been accountable or loyal to the DSA or any socialist or Leftist organization. On the contrary, Bernie caucuses with the Democrats in the senate, signed a loyalty pledge stating he will “run as a Democrat … and serve as a Democrat”, and, as he demonstrated in 2016, will support corporate Democrats in general elections. Thus, in the likely case that Sanders fails to win the nomination under the blatantly undemocratic rules of the primaries, we can expect him to endorse whichever candidate the Democrats nominate, thus delivering his hard-built, anti-neoliberal electoral base to the representatives of the capitalist class. This fundamentally undermines the primary socialist task of building the base for a future workers’ party, for it reinforces, through practice, the principles of class collaboration and lesser-evilism which sustain the co-opting and demobilizing power of bourgeois democracy.
Supporters of Sanders, of course, hope he will actually defeat the right-wing of the Democratic Party and go on to win the Presidency. In this unlikely but not impossible scenario, the contradictions of reformist strategy would come out in full display, starting with enormous and unprecedented pressure from both Democrats and the corporate media to water down Sanders’ already limited program into something that congress is “willing to pass”. Indeed, the pressure to avoid alienating “moderate” voters and the corporate media in ways that may endanger congressional majorities in 2022, coupled with the pressure to make policy concessions that prove the administration can overcome congressional gridlock and pass something (anything!) within the first two years would, in all likelihood, be powerful enough to domesticate a Sanders presidency into something entirely unthreatening to the status quo. If and when this happens, workers and oppressed communities would mobilize against the administration—either because they are thrown under the bus in concessions to the establishment or because their needs were never represented in Sanders’ limited program—at which point they too would be subjected to enormous pressure to fall in line (in this case from the reformist forces that back Sanders) under the argument that criticizing a “socialist president” divides the Left and helps the right return to power.
But even if a future President Sanders were to miraculously transform the Democratic Party into a militant, social-democratic organization and overcome a full-on media attack, his administration would still run against the reality that, under capitalism, all pro-worker reforms are funded through tax revenue and the state’s ability to collect taxes depends on economic growth—that is, on capitalist profitability. This means that either a cyclical contraction of the economy or a politically deliberate withholding of investments on the part of capitalists (i.e. a capital strike) would generate economic decline, undermining the political legitimacy of the administration and forcing it to abandon reforms and embrace anti-worker measures to restore profits and growth. This is, of course, the established history of reformism and there is no reason to expect things to play out differently for a reformist project that has the additional burdens of being embedded in a capitalist institution and emerging at a time when independent working class movements are nowhere near as powerful as they were during the 1930s and 1960s.
Beyond the structural power of capital, any profound challenge to the ruling class on the part of a future Sanders administration would also be resisted by what Charlie Post calls the “unelected permanent officialdom—the civil service / executive agencies, judiciary and, ultimately, the military.” As Post has repeatedly pointed out,
“these institutions, popularly referred to as the “deep state,” have historically been the center of resistance to attempts by the socialist left to “use” elected positions within the capitalist state to implement meaningful reforms, much less to break with the logic of capital…Only a decisive rupture in the institutional structure of the state — the dismantling of the old state and the construction of a working-class counterpower — can allow working people to win significant reforms and begin the construction of socialism.”
Overcoming these obstacles would require massive, militant, and independent working class movements that are tactically oriented towards direct action and willing, if necessary, to break the law and struggle against the Democratic Party, the labor officialdom, and the middle class leadership of progressive NGOs. The most sophisticated advocates of the DSA strategy acknowledge both the structural barriers confronting a possible Sanders administration and the centrality of mass struggles to overcome them. Hence they appeal to a so-called “inside-outside” strategy that tries to productively combine building militant mass struggles with winning office through elections and administering the capitalist state. They repeatedly point to Sanders’ rhetorical support for labor and social struggles and call for “a mass movement of ordinary people to exert its own pressure on politicians, rivaling the pressure exerted by capitalists [through] political strikes that tank profits or halt the normal functions of society.” This is, of course, not new—most reformist projects have appealed to popular mobilizations, often with far more radical rhetoric (e.g., . Syriza or Chavez), as a necessary complement to parliamentary activity. And like earlier reformists, socialist supporters of Bernie 2020 fail to grapple with and resolve the inherent tensions and contradictions between electoralism and mass struggle.
The most obvious conflict between the two goals is one of priorities. If, as the historical record shows, it is the disruptive power of militant, mass movements and not that of elected reformist politicians that creates the conditions of possibility for winning reforms, then it follows that building such movements is the primary task of socialists (both reformist and revolutionary) today. Yet, when socialists are caught up playing the game of capitalist democracy, which requires investing extraordinary time and energy in campaigns that start months or years before voting takes place, it is hard to imagine how there will be enough resources to build a militant base in the workplaces and neighborhoods. Every hour a socialist spends canvassing for Bernie 2020 is an hour that is not spent building independent movements oriented towards direct action in the workplaces and streets. The current leadership of the DSA may argue that the “outside” element of their strategy is just as or more important than their quest to win office but, based on the scope of their actual activities since 2016, anyone paying attention knows that far more time and energy has been invested in providing foot soldiers for progressive candidates (many of whom are not members of DSA and only share a fraction of their program) than in reforming the labor movement or organizing the immigrant working class.
More importantly, winning elections under capitalism involves a fundamentally different logic than building mass movements. As Robert Brenner has explained, winning elections requires two basic things: appealing to 50% plus one of the electorate and getting supporters to perform the relatively passive act of going to the polls and casting a vote. Hence, to win, left candidates must more or less accept and adapt to the electorate’s current consciousness. It is a game of channeling Left energy into the primaries and then slowly shifting to the center while taking distance from ideas considered too radical in order to win more moderate votes. We are already seeing this dynamic at play with Bernie Sanders. On February 23, Sanders called on Venezuela to accept the so-called “humanitarian aid” orchestrated by Trump and right-wing governments in Latin America to materially support the coup efforts of the Venezuelan right, but he has been notoriously quiet about the crushing economic sanctions imposed by the US on the Venezuelan economy as part of an open campaign to force a regime change. More recently, at a town-hall in Iowa, Sanders responded to a question about his immigration views by saying: “What we need is comprehensive immigration reform. If you open the borders, my God, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it. So that is not my position.” If Bernie wins the primary, we can expect both his program and image to move further to the Right as he focuses on swing states; and we can expect his core supporters on the Left, including the DSA, to uncritically accept this because they understand that this is necessary to win.
On the other hand, strikes and other militant, mass actions require not only high numbers of people participating, but a qualitatively deeper commitment from them. To win a battle against employers, workers must, in Brenner’s words,
“develop the most powerful solidarity; they must take risks; they have to make sacrifices; they must be prepared to take illegal actions and use force; and, in the end, they need to develop the ideas that explain and justify these actions to themselves and others. All this is necessary to win, because what is involved is a direct test of power with the employers and/or the state.”
Naturally, militant action is often alienating for middle class and moderate voters, who are overrepresented in the electorate. The more militant and independent a movement becomes, the greater the tension between building structural, working class power and winning elections to administer the capitalist state. What’s more, as described above, militant movements must often confront the social forces of reformism: the labor bureaucracy and the middle class leadership of progressive organizations. If the leadership of unions and progressive NGOs embrace Bernie 2020, as some did in 2016 and many more are likely to this time around, a rise in rank-and-file militancy would force another key choice: would the campaign and its supporters on the left throw their uncompromising political and material support behind the task of reforming the labor movement or would they equivocate and play a conciliatory role to avoid alienating powerful supporters in the union bureaucracy? If history is any indication, they would capitulate to the pressures of a futile and self-defeating “pragmatism”.
It is precisely the type of deep solidarity, creativity, and collective self-governance necessary to win strikes and analogous actions that builds genuine socialist consciousness. Challenging the bosses and the state gives workers concrete experience of their power and agency. It gives meaning to the idea that, as workers, we have the key to our own liberation and must rely on ourselves and our organizing power to transform the world. As Florence Oppen argued in an earlier issue of this publication, democratic workers’ self-determination is at the core of socialist consciousness. Thus, its emergence requires breaking:
“with the illusions and dependency on the institutions of bourgeois governance, which include all the spaces of representative democracy (city councils, state legislatures, and Congress) along with the established parties. Class independence is not something simply proclaimed and printed on a flyer. It means creating real experience of struggle and governance of our class by our class, with democracy, accountability and independence.”
Despite its role in popularizing elements of the socialist program (free education, healthcare, and so on), the Bernie 2020 campaign will not serve as an effective vehicle for building socialist consciousness because it uncritically embraces the capitalist electoral system, its power of co-optation, and the illusion that socialism can come about without revolutionary struggle.
As committed socialists, we cannot support the Bernie 2020 campaign, not out of a dogmatic commitment to some sort of purity or maximalism, but because it’s embedded in a strategy that is bound to co-opt and ultimately undermine working class struggles, while rebuilding the base and legitimacy of the Democratic Party and capitalist democracy. Instead, we put forward an alternative socialist strategy—one in which the indisputable center of gravity is building the democratically self-organized struggles of working people and gradually unifying and leading them towards direct action. This does not, of course, mean that socialists should not participate in elections. It means we engage in independent, oppositional electoral campaigns, not with the primary goal of winning office (though this is certainly a possibility in certain contexts), but rather to build, strengthen, and connect movements around a transitional program that clarifies the need to break with the state and move beyond the limits of what is possible under capitalism. This strategy is not only much more likely to win reforms, but also to win them in a way that builds the independence and organizational power of our class, rather than setting the stage for demobilization and counter-reform.
Bernie Sanders is an effective, charismatic leader who has built an impressive electoral base of working people who want to build a different society, are fed up with the status quo, and are looking for a real alternative. If he was truly committed to his platform, let alone to socialism, he would break with the Democratic Party, call a convention of socialist, labor and social justice organizations and movements, and make his candidacy accountable to democratic workers’ control. We have no illusions whatsoever that anything like this will happen—after all, Bernie was the first to sign a pledge commiting to “support the ultimate Democratic nominee, whoever it is—period.” But if Sanders were to get real and put his star-power at the service of working class struggles, then we would consider supporting him.
 Hall, S. (2007), The NAACP, Black Power, and the African American Freedom Struggle, 1966–1969. Historian, 69: 49–82.