Looking Back at the Primaries

John W. Lawrence

1. What is the legacy of the Sanders insurgency? What is the state of left organization? Are we closer to a proto-workers party?

JWL: The Sanders campaign accomplished two historical achievements that progressive activists can build on going forward. First, the campaign united millions of mostly working-class Americans behind a progressive universalist political vision. Second, the campaign organized these working people to implement a concrete political strategy to compete for power with the capitalist ruling class.  By raising several hundred million dollars from small-dollar donations and organizing millions of working people, the campaign created the organizational capacity of working people to possibly elect a government that actually governs in their interest. The two-party political system in which the moneyed elite dominate both parties has a good-cop/bad-cop dynamic which limits the realm of political possibility in the U.S. The Sanders campaign developed an independent working-class organization within this two-party system that appeared to be building a viable strategy to break the capitalist lock on political power.  This surge in working-class organizational capacity frightened both the Democratic Party elites and the corporate media as seen by the hysterical reaction following Sanders’ win in Nevada.

The goal of socialists is to create the institutional capacity of the “99%” to act in unison for a politics based in universal solidarity. That is traditionally done in a political party but the two-party system in the U.S. has successfully prevented a mass working-class party from organizing in the U.S.  Moreover, capitalism institutionalizes many forms of oppression to divide and conquer the majority.  As a result of this dynamic of being locked out of party politics and the multiplicity of capitalist oppressions, the Left in the U.S. is traditionally fragmented, organized into relatively small issue-oriented pressure groups that occasionally work together in coalitions. In five years, the Sanders movement changed the realm of possibility in the U.S. moving towards creating a politics based in universal solidarity.  Universalist policies such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and cradle-to-grave free education are now endorsed by strong majorities in the Democratic Party.

The Sanders campaign fell short of the Democratic Party nomination because many people concluded that Bernie Sanders was not “electable.”  In essence, this group decided that the movement behind Bernie was not powerful enough to break with the corporate wing of the Democratic Party and still beat Donald Trump.  To project that type of power, the movement needs to make the organizing and fundraising that occurred in the Sanders campaign permanent. That is, we need a national proto party which can work inside and outside the Democratic Party on both the street and in party politics in order to build the unified working-class super-majority with the capacity to take power.  Moreover, the movement needs to develop an institutional democratic process and commitment to work through the real differences within our movement. The success of the Sanders campaign and the quick growth of organizations such as Democratic Socialists of America and Our Revolution suggests this strategy is viable.

2. One of the remarkable achievements of the Sanders campaign was the building–at least for the primary campaign purposes–of a truly diverse, rainbow-like, working-class coalition that included the black left, community-based Latinx organizations, several union leaders, etc. Many groups traditionally identified with “identity politics” came on board. For moments, it seemed prefigurative of a diverse, multiracial, working-class party. Of course, there is a long road to be traveled here but what would need to happen to bring these forces together beyond a primary campaign? What kind of dialogue is needed among these groups to develop a minimum program and even a shared narrative?

JWL: Capitalism has organized the entire global political economy around the short-term profits of very few elites. These profits are based upon the exploitation, dispossession, and exclusion of a vast majority of humanity. How does the small minority of ultrarich maintain its power? They have monopolized control of the capacity to organize mass organizations for governance and violence (states) and production (corporations). In addition, through a laundry list of strategies, they divide and conquer the majority. For example, there is a long history of imperialist powers recruiting the poor of one region into armies to go conquer the poor in another region and in the context of war many of the soldiers adopt the perspective of the oppressor.

There is also a long history of ordinary people organizing diverse coalitions to win liberating demands. U.S. history is full of examples of different movements (e.g., labor, civil rights, gay rights, antiwar, etc.) working together and inspiring each other to expand the realm of freedom and democracy. The link between these movements was often socialist or anarchist groups.

The Sanders campaign demonstrates that working people can come together around a platform based on universalist values that address both generalized (e.g., global warming, nuclear war, labor exploitation) and specific (environmental racism in a specific locality) manifestations of capitalist oppression. The campaign had a clear narrative of us versus the capitalist oligarchs. Over ten million people donated money, organized, and voted for the purpose of electing Sanders. Can the next step be taken to turn a political campaign into a permanent organizing effort? I do not know but that needs to be our goal. A functioning mass proto-party which can organize inside and outside the Democratic Party, grounded in grassroots activist organizations would go a long way towards inspiring worker solidarity and confidence. Organizations such as Our Revolution and Democratic Socialist of America are making efforts to that end, but their membership make up a small percentage of the progressive working class. 

There are real differences on the Left regarding vision, strategy, and tactics. The movement needs an institutional home to create a democratic forum to work through these differences. Moreover, a lot of work needs to be done to create a democratic theory and practice to doing democracy to scale. Movement democracy in which a lot of little groups periodically cooperate does not create the unity necessary to inspire working-class collective confidence to take action to displace the capitalists from power. On the other hand, the Left also has a tradition of organizing large scale bureaucratic institutions that devolve into totalitarianism. The working class needs an institutional home in which it can consciously work to create a mass inclusive democratic process and act in solidarity. The proto-party needs to consciously create an inclusive process in which the most disenfranchised take leading roles in decision-making. The Sanders campaign suggest such an institution is possible.

3. As we consider the trajectory of the campaign, especially the confused conversation about alleged “moderates” and/or “centrists,” what will a future left formation have to do to bring in the upper strata of the working class? I am thinking especially about suburban white women, the more progressive of whom seem to have been decisive, with African American middle class-led organizations, in turning the tide against Sanders and for Biden.

JWL: A functional mass proto-party could potentially change the distribution of power in the U.S. which would change people’s assessment of what is possible. If working people can run many viable electoral campaigns without the support of capitalists, working people will be less fearful of alienating the corporate elite of the Democratic Party. For example, if we elected ten or twenty more outspoken young progressive women of color in the Congress like the Squad, Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal will seem more possible. If a proto-party could back up a strike against a large corporation like Walmart with an effective boycott, it will change working people’s sense of their own power. In addition, a national institutionalized democratic forum in the context of the proto-party could facilitate cross-class multiracial dialogs about issues hopeful developing a consensus not only about demands but strategy and tactics.

4. The easy question: What is the road forward? (I am looking for some granularity here, particularly about organizing and political formations – to surface the premise – the road forward for leftists who wish to build on the achievements of the Sanders campaign and also defeat Trump).

JWL: The immediate task is to defeat Trump. This is an imperative task. As is plainly evident in the Coronavirus pandemic, Trump and the Republican Party are an existential threat to democracy and humanity. In addition, the actions of the Trump administration have greatly increased the likelihood of both run-away global warming and nuclear war.

I think it would be a catastrophic mistake for progressives to sit out the presidential race because we do not like the Corporate Democrat, Biden. The election of Biden would create openings for pressure politics to be successful in the coming years. If the Sanders campaign activist network stays functional working to elect Biden by raising money and organizing independently but in coordination with the Biden campaign, progressives could build power through the campaign. The independent campaign could explicitly endorse Biden as a tactic to open the opportunity for a pressure campaign for the Sanders platform during and after the election. By staying active and organized, progressives also put pressure on the Biden campaign to heed their concerns. In the context of the coronavirus, this strategy is contingent on the Biden campaign endorsing policies that will concretely address the needs of working people. If the Biden campaign proposes an austerity neoliberal budget in a time of economic depression, the Democrats cannot win. 

The exuberance generated by ousting Trump and the pent-up anger from the Trumps’ coronavirus pandemic and economic depression catastrophe could generate a wave of organizing. A functional organizing institution such as the Sanders campaign could potentially serve as a democratic forum to guide that organizing and be a prefiguration for a working-class proto-party. Implemented with integrity, such a strategy would also inspire confidence of the working class. It would demonstrate the capacity to implement a multi-stepped strategy to contest for power. A Biden win powered by progressive organizing will open opportunities for going on the offensive to build working-class power.