Bernie Sanders at an MLK Day rally in 2016

Bernie Sanders and the Lessons of the “Dirty Break”: Why Socialists Shouldn’t Run as Democrats

The economic crisis and pandemic have made it patently clear that US capitalism is not at all exceptional. Like everything else in the universe, American capital’s political system is subject to sharp and sudden changes. After Bernie Sanders handily won the first few contests of the 2020 race for the Democratic nomination, he was seen as an unstoppable threat—prompting every other candidate to immediately fold up their campaigns and close ranks against him. After months of panicking over Bernie’s momentum, the ruling class finally managed to reverse the course of the electoral race—and they did it with unprecedented speed. Now, after an electrifying rollercoaster ride, Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the American presidency is over, and a balance sheet is needed.

Seeking solace in the notion that he has led American workers to “victory” in the “ideological battle” within the Democratic Party, the lifelong independent referred to himself as “a member of the Democratic leadership in the US Senate” as he conceded defeat and bent the knee yet again.

How did Sanders, who struck terror into the DNC leadership as his campaign threatened to rocket into the stratosphere, end up reframing his candidacy as a mere stratagem to “realign” the Democratic Party by pushing it microscopically to the left?

How did he end up conceding to a party rival who not only represents the best hope of the capitalists to defeat Trump while defending their interests, but who can barely complete thoughts without fumbling over his own words?

And this, in the context of a health crisis that exposes the absurdity of capitalism and the profit motive—the best possible moment to mobilize the working majority for a settling of accounts with the system once the pandemic has been tamed.

For the last few years, a layer of the US left has argued that the Sanders campaign in the Democratic Party was a bellwether that would lead to the creation of a new type of socialist party. Through some kind of alchemy, the result was to be a party that runs on the Democratic Party ballot line, yet represents the interests of the working class and promotes radical socialist politics. The left wing of this current argued that the movement behind Sanders, and the dozens of self-described socialist candidates running on the Democratic ballot line, would form the basis of a future “dirty break” with the Democrats.

This position has been popularized by Jacobin magazine, with managing editor Seth Ackerman putting forward the “dirty break” thesis in his influential article, A Blueprint for a New Party. This became the central electoral tenet of a broad current of the New DSA that emerged in the wake of Sanders’s 2016 campaign. Now, with Sanders’s second consecutive capitulation to the Democratic Party establishment, it’s time for a sober and balanced appraisal of this strategy.

The Ackerman blueprint

In his thesis, Ackerman purports to offer a way out of the historic impasse of the American left. He views the impasse as a choice between doomed-to-defeat “third-party” efforts, or the old DSA approach of seeking to “realign” the Democratic Party. Ackerman contends that the paralysis of the left is rooted in what he describes as a prohibitively draconian electoral-legal framework more akin to semi-dictatorial regimes like Russia than traditional liberal democracies.

Proponents of the Ackerman blueprint believe that he has discovered a magic key of sorts—a “third way” that views the Democratic Party as a more or less empty shell that can be filled with socialist content. Ackerman argues that the left should sidestep the constraints of the US electoral law and evade the intrusion of the state into party affairs by setting up nonprofits for members to organize, raise funds, and finance individual campaigns, instead of formally building a new mass party of the working class.

We are told that establishing a new party is an impossible challenge. Any talk of a mass, independent socialist party is dismissed as an attempt to build yet another failed “third party.” He contends that the specific ballot line one runs on doesn’t really matter, so we may as well use the existing Democratic Party line when pragmatically convenient. Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara has even suggested that socialists could propagandistically use the ballot line of the Republican Party in this way! In essence, Ackerman’s fundamental political thesis is “agnosticism” towards the ballot line.

Ackerman is absolutely correct that the Democratic Party is not a genuine party, that it is more or less a bank account and a pro-capitalist endorsement apparatus. But he is dead wrong when he asserts that it exists in ethereal suspension, disconnected from powerful class interests. And he exposes his deep-seated pessimism at the prospect for real change if he believes that the working class cannot overcome the capitalists’ electoral regime—never mind their centralized state and other institutions.

The roots of the capitalist two-party system

As one of the earliest modern bourgeois republics, the United States maintains peculiarities that are not found among other traditions. Contrary to what Ackerman contends, the existence of a two-party dichotomy is not a function of exceptionally restrictive electoral laws or a question of ballot access. In fact, the US has more or less been a two-party system from the very beginning. In the final analysis, this structure is rooted in the semi-Bonapartist presidential system adopted after the first American Revolution.

Founding Fathers
From Federalist to Anti-Federalist, Whigs, Democrats, and Republicans, there have been several party systems in US history. / Image: Public Domain

Feudalism was never deeply rooted in North America, and the early American state was decentralized and weak. But the post-revolutionary class struggle, exemplified in events such as Shays’s Rebellion compelled the founders to move towards greater centralization within an overall federal system. Kingship was eventually superseded by another strong executive, the president. Despite the formal emphasis on the separation of powers, in content, the American president is a semi-Bonapartist figure who can rule by decree, with the power to appoint unelected cabinet members and other government officials almost at will, although some are subject to the “consent” of the Senate. Over the centuries, this power has become increasingly concentrated.

From very early on, the growing class contradictions inherent in American society were refracted through parties controlled by rival groups of men of property. Given the nature of the electoral system, this rapidly bifurcated into a two-party system. However, it has not always been the same two parties, and even the present parties have reflected and leaned on varying social forces over time. From Federalist to Anti-Federalist, Whigs, Democrats, and Republicans, there have been several party systems in US history.

The example of the Republican Party is illustrative. Founded as an abolitionist coalition, it represented the progressive class-struggle forces of its epoch, and became the political vehicle for the revolutionary uprooting of the Southern slavocracy. Just six turbulent years after its founding, it found itself in presidential power, compelled to carry out a revolutionary war that abolished chattel slavery and cleared the decks for the untrammeled development of capitalism across the continent.

In the not-too-distant future, when the US working class builds a mass socialist party, it will by no means be destined for inevitable “third-party” status. Based on the unions, the most organized expression of the workers, and representing the working class as a whole, it will fight in the interests of the vast majority. Like the Republicans in the 1850s, it will represent the progressive class-struggle forces of society and could rapidly rise to prominence. The current bosses’ parties will be forced to fuse or fight over who gets relegated to “third-party” status.

To the credit of most DSA trends, they do not make the sectarian mistake of writing off the trade union movement. As Ackerman notes, “only unions have the scale, experience, resources, and connections with millions of workers needed” to form a permanent political party to represent the working class—i.e., the vast majority of the population that sells its labor power for a wage. Yet at the same time, advocates of working within the Democratic Party are pessimistic about the prospect of actually creating a party based on the unions.

Nevermind the breathtaking changes in mass consciousness since 2016, the record levels of discontent with both major parties, or the fact that workers in every other country have managed to establish various working-class parties throughout history. Again, this belies the deep-seated pessimism of Ackerman and his ilk, and the pragmatic outlook that dominates the left in the US. Instead of recognizing the factors that are rapidly preparing a dramatic transformation of the political landscape, these people throw their hands up in despair and declare that the two-party system is a reality we must accept.

The electoral regime and class struggle

Ackerman advocates a genuinely democratic organization, in which the party’s members collectively establish its program, elect a leadership, and select candidates for electoral work. Yet, he also wants this organization to operate within the Democratic Party, or at least to gain access to the Democratic Party ballot line, which means participating in party structures such as primaries and caucuses. Despite Ackerman’s protests to the contrary, this amounts precisely to becoming a faction of the Democratic Party. But what does it even mean to function as a faction of the Democrats?

Socialists generally agree that the Democrats and Republicans are capitalist institutions. But the truth is that neither of the bosses’ political vehicles are “parties” in the sense understood in the vast majority of the world. In truth, both of the bosses’ parties are semi-state political machines.

I voted sticker US elections
Party membership is typically organized directly by the state. / Image: NY Assembly

So the problem is actually more acute than Ackerman allows. It is not simply that the law is restrictive in terms of access to the ballot for non-state aligned parties. The American political system has carved out formal state roles for the two main capitalist parties, including the appointment and selection of judges. This is unprecedented in world politics. No other country has judges linked so directly to a party. Such codification exists at numerous levels, including state and party oversight of the basic act of registering to vote.

What remains “political” about both the bosses’ parties is not properly political either. Instead of being instruments of self-organization for political expression by the population, these semi-state parties represent complex political machines that operate in a patronage relationship with their clients. What was once appalling about Tammany Hall has become the generalized state of affairs in the entire American political system. These machines relate to various “special interests”—mainly corporate behemoths. As for organized labor, it is subsumed into the Democratic Party “umbrella” as just another “special interest” among many.

This is why the assertion that a fundamentally new party can be created while operating within the Democratic Party primary and ballot system is patently absurd. It ignores the fact that the Democratic Party machine has a definite capitalist-class form and content, and has powerful operators that seek to undermine and co-opt socialists of every stripe “by any means necessary.”

Mass parties arise from mass forces. Like revolutions, opportunities to form new parties are relatively rare, but not nonexistent. The Bernie Sanders movement represented one such opportunity. Had Sanders announced the formation of a new party before this election cycle, appealed to the union movement, and led those who were radicalized by the openly anti-democratic character of the DNC, he could have built a party of millions that could have easily overcome the legal and ballot access restrictions that are presented by Ackerman and co. as insurmountable obstacles.

A historic opportunity may have been missed. But socialists running in 2020 and beyond should draw the lessons from this experience and run as independents—not as Democrats. By running on the Democratic ballot line they will be beholden to that party in some shape or form. The trajectory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is instructive: from independent outsider to establishment loyal oppositionist.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and House Speaker Pelosi in 2019
AOC has increasingly emphasized working with the Democratic leadership. / Image: Speaker Office of Nancy Pelosi via Wikimedia Commons

A serious socialist approach would mean using campaigns to reach a broader audience with a program for transforming society, raising people’s horizons to the revolutionary tasks that lie ahead for the working class. If we are serious about guiding the working class towards winning state and economic power, then our approach to electoral work must flow from this. Rather than watering down our program to reach more supporters, we should be making a bold case for socialism, and preparing for an even more dramatic shift to the left under the impact of the events that are already unfolding.

This approach may mean that initial participation is limited to areas where there are concentrations of supporters. A successful run in one area can help to gain more adherents everywhere. As independents, candidates may not get access to the party’s institutionalized structures, funding, and debates. But in exchange for being cut off from the platforms of the capitalist political establishment, they will be positioned to become a reference point for millions of workers in the context of a rising wave of class struggle and mass anger at the abject failure of every level of the status quo. They will be free to defend genuine socialist ideas, owing their allegiance only to those ordinary workers and youth who support them. They would not be tied in any way to the Democratic Party or be held responsible for its reactionary policies. This could lay the foundations for a new party, which could rocket ahead on the basis of events.

Instead, we see that the electoral work being conducted by socialists in the Democratic Party has not managed to create any alternative or even a prominent point of reference for the working class at this key juncture. What happens to the left if and when the Democrats get back into power and their policies generate anger and the population moves against them from the left? Those who have been part and parcel of that party will be politically compromised.

The COVID-19 crisis and the contradictions of capitalism

Crisis is an intrinsic part of capitalism. Even if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t triggered the economic collapse, the world was inevitably headed towards a recession. COVID-19 has merely accelerated the process and exposed all the ugliness of the system.

Across the globe, the bosses are pushing hard for the economy to restart, to keep their profits flowing. This is only sharpening the class struggle and a wave of wildcat strikes is spreading among essential workers.

The virus may not discriminate when spreading from person to person, but outcomes are vastly uneven across the class divide. In the US, black and Latino workers are more likely to die from COVID-19. This is not due to any inherent physical weakness, but rather, due to the morbidity and lack of quality care that is most common among the super oppressed layers of society. Many also have jobs that cannot be done from home.

Even in the wealthy United States, healthcare workers do not have adequate PPE. Grocery workers are putting their lives on the line and earning only a few dollars of extra hazard pay—if they are lucky. And yet, the stock market is again bullish. It may mean little to the millions that are jobless and unable to pay rent, but the tonic of trillions of dollars in stimulus and news of a likely lower—more acceptable—death rate has rallied the market, at least temporarily.

The crisis has sharpened all the contradictions of capitalism and reality is hitting the capitalist class in the face.As a result, they have been forced to lean on the power of the state. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, has called for the partial nationalization of healthcare. Even Donald Trump has flirted with the idea of expanding Medicare coverage, saying “it’s not fair” that so many would lose healthcare coverage due to job losses. Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, remains opposed to Medicare For All, but now advocates that Medicare cover everyone age 60 and older. How much he actually pushes for this if he becomes president is another question.

Pres. Trump signes the COVID-19 response bill, shown with HHS Sec. Alex Azar
Trump signing the first coronavirus response funding bill. The crisis is forcing capitalist politicians to use the state in ways recently unthinkable. / Image: The White House via Wikimedia Commons

As for Sanders, he and the reformist cadre of his movement still call only for Medicare For All—not outright nationalization of the entire healthcare industry. This, at a time when the need for a truly national health service is more evident than ever. Of course, this is also connected to the question of party affiliation. The sections of the socialist movement that continue to work within the Democratic Party rightly believe that fundamental change is not possible within the limits of this party. But instead of drawing the necessary conclusions and making a break, they limit their expectations and demands accordingly.

For a mass, working-class socialist party!

The fundamental difference between reformist pessimism and revolutionary optimism is that the latter understands the role of the party, not as a purely or primarily electoral effort, but rather, as just one component of a wider strategy for socialist revolution.

That social-democratic pessimism denies the possibility of a revolutionary situation in the United States is a given. Revolutionary socialists, on the other hand, are confident that mass working-class struggles can, must, and will overcome all the hurdles put before us by the capitalists and their state.

We must, therefore, maintain a sense of proportion about the obstacles that socialists face in the US. As an example, we do not have to work in conditions of secrecy, illegality, or underground work. But we should also be clear that a mass socialist party cannot simply be declared by a small group—although some groups on the left continue to burn their members out with this failed approach.

Fortunately, a growing number of workers and youth in the US understand that the formation of a mass socialist party will result from the convergence of various streams of class struggle. As it happens, just such a wave of class struggle is emerging. Despite the relatively small numbers involved, essential workers are demonstrating what working-class power is really based on.

The leavening of a committed base of cadres can accelerate the process and provide essential theoretical clarity. But only the working class, united in struggle, can build a party that can soar beyond the limits of “third-party-ism,” win political power, and institute a workers’ government.

A mass socialist party with real roots in the class must ultimately be tied organically to a majority of the unions. But such a party is not the union movement writ large—it would seek to represent all workers and to expand its unionized base. A mass socialist party would use its platform to help organize the unorganized. With a correct program and orientation, a mass socialist party would be positioned to channel a mass movement that would include strikes and a sweeping unionization wave for workers in all sectors. Needless to say, this is not something the Democratic Party leadership cares to do. In fact, nothing terrifies them more than the unchained energy of the working class.

The lack of a class-independent workers’ party in the US today is not the consequence of exceptional features of this country’s political setup, but rather a result of the mistakes of the leadership of the labor movement and the left, and, more often than not, an utter absence of leadership altogether. Resolving this will not be a quick or easy process—a new mass party cannot be simply willed into existence. But one thing is clear: the Democratic Party does not present a way out of COVID-19 or the broader economic and societal crisis. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but the millions of workers and youth who were energized by Bernie Sanders over the last few years are coming to the conclusion that they are in the wrong party—because they don’t yet have one of their own.

Socialist Revolution 2019 National School Group
The US section of the IMT is building the forces of revolutionary socialism nationwide. / Image: Socialist Revolution

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