Bernie Sanders, social democracy and the state
Updated: Apr 10
Thomas Hummel explores the exciting possibilities the Sanders campaign has opened up, alongside the serious risks and pitfalls of social democratic electoral movements around the world, including Greece, the UK, and Chile.
I never thought I would hear a presidential candidate openly and unapologetically say the words, “billionaires should not exist.” And yet, those are the words of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The quasi-religious worship of the unlimited accumulation of wealth has been an unquestioned staple of mainstream American politics since at least the Reagan reaction of the 1980s. It is built into the capitalist system. Sanders is the only presidential candidate who seems to think this is a problem, reminding us at nearly every speaking event that the top one-tenth of the 1% own as much wealth as the bottom 90% of the population in this country. Bernie sincerely wants to turn this around.
Sanders’ policy proposals have a lot to admire. Of the presidential candidates, he undoubtedly has the best immigration policy. His platform calls for a moratorium on deportations, breaking up ICE, shutting down the detention centers and reinstating DACA. These policies are thanks in very large part to the resurgence of the immigrant rights movement defending DACA and calling to abolish ICE over the last few years.
Sanders “Medicare for All” platform would be an enormous step in the right direction for health care in the United States, where by international standards, our privatized system has resulted in some of the highest costs for some of the worst results and leaving millions uninsured or underinsured. His plan for free college resonates with a generation of people drowning in student debt.
People are becoming increasingly aware that the status quo is unsustainable. An increasingly large percentage of the population is terrified by the looming threats of converging environmental crises and the equally terrifying complete unwillingness or inability of the state to do anything about it. Sanders’ plan for a Green New Deal is one of the only solutions put forward by anyone in Washington even approaches the magnitude of the environmental catastrophe we are facing.
In the electoral arena, for all its severe limitations, Sanders has pulled the political discussion significantly to the left. During the New Hampshire Democratic debate earlier this month, all the nominees were forced to speak on working class people and their needs, not “rebuilding the middle class,” a formerly popular slogan that deliberately obscured class and left out the poorest people.
The benefit of Sanders de-stigmatizing and normalizing openly calling yourself a socialist is also significant. This is a positive starting place from which to begin talking to people about what socialism really means, including the need for deeper revolutionary politics.
The central limitation of the Sanders campaign strategy is their disproportionate focus on electoral politics. For example, during the Sanders rally in Queens in October 2019, which was attended by thousands of people, neither Sanders nor Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mentioned any other form of struggle besides going to the polls on election day. This strategy runs into contradiction with one of the central tenets of socialism: that working class emancipation can only be achieved through the working class’ self-activity and self-organization. This is not just a matter of theory but has been illustrated by history again and again.
Some of those historical examples and their limitations are outlined below. But while socialists always have criticisms of relying on the electoral road to socialism, this does not mean we should simply ignore all elections. Revolutionary socialists who organize independently of reformist political organizations have historically still backed votes for social democratic and labor parties on a class basis, depending on their political and tactical circumstances.
It is possible for revolutionaries to campaign for reformist parties in elections, while being absolutely clear that elections and legal reforms on their own cannot get rid of capitalism, and with an understanding that exclusively electoral work is no substitute for class struggle. It is important to note that the Democratic Party, however, is not a social democratic party. It is one of the two main parties of US capitalism. Nonetheless, the excitement and movement around Sanders as a self-proclaimed socialist means we must look at the history of different left wing and progressive reformers, especially if we want to avoid their mistakes.
Syriza in Greece
First, let’s take the recent experience of the left reformist party Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece. Greece had been devastated by the European sovereign-debt crisis, with the “Troika” (the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank) forcing the Greek government to cut social programs and imposing austerity in order to pay off their debt. Syriza was voted into power in 2015 on a promise to resist this austerity which had taken unemployment to 26% and youth employment to 50%.
But what happened after Syriza took power? They went back on all their promises and worked with the Troika to continue implementing austerity. Why did they do this? Was it because they had planned this all along and had intentionally deceived the Greek people? Of course not. The leaders of Syriza had undoubtedly believed in their program, thinking like so many social democratic parties before them, that once they were at the head of their government they would have the power to determine policy and move society away from the harsh austerity imposed by the Troika.
But the reality is that once Syriza took power, they found that the deck was insurmountably stacked against them. The same would be true for a Sanders government in the United States. This is not to say that it doesn’t matter if Sanders wins or loses. But the essential lesson from Syriza is that we cannot win or defend any of our demands unless we have a strong, fighting socialist movement beyond electoral politics.
As Marx says in his pamphlet The Civil War in France, following the defeat of the Paris Commune, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” Building socialism is only possible with a hard break from the existing order. This is because, despite its appearance in capitalist society, the state is not a marketplace where various ideas about how to run society can democratically compete with one another — it is an instrument of class warfare by which one class maintains their domination and suppresses other classes. Only ideas which in one way or another serve the ruling class are allowed to rule.
In circumstances in which a social democratic party has taken power, they are forced to choose between two bad options: to give up their aspirations of building social democracy and betray their electorate, or face the discipline of the logic of capitalism — a bourgeoisie in revolt, that social democrats in power, not having built other forms of working-class resistance, have limited power to combat.
British Labour Party in 1974
In 1974, a social-democratic Labour government under Harold Wilson was elected in Britain upon a manifesto that promised to “bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families.” In many ways this manifesto was remarkably similar to the one put forward by recently defeated left Labour hopeful Jeremy Corbyn, except in the places where the 1974 manifesto was more radical. It called for the nationalization of oil and gas reserves, land needed for development, shipbuilding, ship repairing, ports, the manufacture of airframes and aeroengines, sections of pharmaceuticals, road haulage, construction, machine tools and the implementation of an annual wealth tax on the rich.
But what happened when Labour took power? The elected Labour government was more effective at keeping wages down than the previous conservative Tory government had been. Union leaders were able to persuade their members to accept cuts in a way that would not have been possible under the right, since Labour was ostensibly on the side of the working class. A thousand jobs were lost a day in the first three years of Labour’s rule and the 2% average wage rise between 1948 and 1973 was turned into a 1.6% average annual wage fall.
Labour’s ambitious plan for reforms had come into contradiction with the incorrigible logic of capitalism.
This was the period when “New Deal” Keynesian economics were giving way to neoliberalism. The destruction of World War II and the need for a global recovery had created the longest boom of capitalist production which had made rising living standards, the Labour party’s reforms and the welfare state possible. They were not possible because the laws of capitalism are able to make room for them at any time, but because of the needs of capital accumulation at a particular historical moment.
When that moment passed and the economic boom began to turn into stagnation, the needs of capital accumulation changed, and improved raised living standards that the working class had become used to after the second world war needed to be sacrificed in order to keep the engine of capitalism running.
Meanwhile, the vultures of the bourgeoisie prepared for the worst and were ready to organize a rebellion. The head of the Confederation of British Industry, the union of the bosses, admitted they “discussed an investment strike—the possibility of industry withholding its investment. But we also discussed various things about not paying various taxes, and a list—I don’t know that I want to be very specific—but a list of things which in themselves would not have been legal.”
In 1976, they finally got their chance when a number of left-wing Labour members of parliament defeated a plan for massive cuts in government spending. The financial capitalists began selling off the pound, sending its value plummeting. In a panic,the Labour government agreed to enormous cuts on social programs as a condition for a loan from the US Treasury and the IMF.
Chile and Allende in 1973
In September 1970, the Chilean people elected the parliamentary socialist Salvador Allende of the coalition Popular Unity party (UP). Allende was a reformist who believed in working within the system to achieve reforms. Allende’s platform was modest, enacting wage rises, land reform and partial nationalization of the economy, including the copper mines which generated the bulk of Chile’s income.
Immediately, the ruling classes domestic and abroad began to have a meltdown. The US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously said, “I don’t see why we have to let a country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible.” Documents released many years later revealed that from the moment Allende was elected the CIA was looking for an opportunity to launch a coup.
After Allende’s election peasants began seizing the big estates while in cities and towns the poor appropriated the land of the rich to build their houses upon. These mobilizations were so popular that in the mid-1971 local elections the UP saw a 14% increase in their vote. The right-wing then went on the offensive with economic sabotage, bosses’ strikes and with middle-class housewives demonstrating in the streets with empty saucepans often held by their maids.
To quell this backlash Allende’s government began to push back against the movement of occupations while the workers organized “cordones”, bringing together representatives from different workplaces to better resist the bosses’ strikes and to keep production going. In October of 1972 the bosses organized a transportation strike which would have shut down the economy if the self-organized workers had not broken it. But Allende was unable to grasp the reality of the circumstances and still sought to find a way to placate the capitalists, appointing military officers to his cabinet and breaking workers self-organization.
On the morning of September 11th, 1973, the Chilean air force, backed by the CIA, bombed the presidential palace, killing Allende. During the terror led by General Augusto Pinochet that followed, 30,000 people were murdered. This coup and the horror that followed could only have been prevented by the organized working-class which Allende had demobilized.
Prospects for Bernie
In all of these cases the socialists lost because they failed to understand the rules of the game they were playing. While these are just a few examples of where social democratic party leaderships have come up short, the examples are nearly endless, spanning an entire century since they first came to power in Germany in 1918, immediately betrayed a revolution, saved capitalism, conspired in the murders of the communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and relied on the legalities of the state during the rise of the Nazi party. Their confusion, cowardice, and mistakes paved the way for fascism in Germany and all the horrors that followed.
So while Bernie represents an important leftward movement, if he wins the presidency, he will run up against certain systemic limits. Bernie cannot change the iron law by which the building of socialism can only be accomplished by the working class itself. There are no shortcuts. It’s especially hard to argue that Bernie would behave differently than the social democrats of the past since his record, while extremely progressive in many respects, is still mixed at best.
While Sanders was Mayor of Burlington, companies in Vermont received an enormous amount of contracts for the manufacture of weapons destined to be placed in the hands of the death squads which Reagan was using terrorize Nicaragua and El Salvador. When anti-war demonstrators occupied a General Electric plant in Burlington which was producing gatling guns, Sanders had them arrested. Later, while serving as a congressman in 1999, Sanders voted to approve Clinton’s bombing of Kosovo. When his constituents occupied his office, he had them arrested as well.
If this is how Sanders in power responds to modest protest against the excesses of US imperialism, it seems likely that he would actively constrain other areas of working class mobilization, especially those kinds which have the potential to challenge capitalism and fundamentally change society.
Bernie would also be taking over the management of capitalism at a time when capitalism is extremely hostile to his “New Deal” Keynesian economics. The story which is told by defenders of those economics is that since they worked after the Second World War, then there is no reason they would not work today. The only reason they were abandoned, the story runs, is bad actors ushering in the era of neoliberalism when it was not needed. This is not the case.
The period of capitalism which had depended upon the high wages of the working-class to buy capitalism’s products had run its course and run out of profitable investments within this framework in the early 1970s. In order to keep making money, the capitalists sacrificed the domestic working class, switching to a highly financialized version of capitalism in which they invested their money in production in the so-called developing countries at the expense of production in their home countries. This was the beginning of the neoliberal period.
While there have been slight modifications to that model since, we still live in an era of capital accumulation which is hostile to policies which help the domestic working class. A government which pretends differently will be disciplined by the market and there is no reason this would be different for Bernie.
The only way out is to look these limitations straight in the eye and have no illusions. Socialists campaigning now must have not just “prospects for Bernie,” but “prospects beyond Bernie” in the front of our minds. We need a social movement that can break the power of capital definitively and construct society on new foundations. This is possible only through the work of an organized working class. These are questions our movement must grapple with before November 9.
This article first appeared on the marx21 (US) Website. Reproduced with permission