Sanders book

Book Review of "Our Revolution" by Bernie Sanders

The crisis of capitalism around the world is pushing the working class to look for a way out.  New mass political parties and movements like SYRIZA in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party in Britain, and Jean-Luc Melenchon’s Rebellious France have come from nowhere to challenge the system. The movement around Bernie Sanders is part of the same process, but it has no future unless it breaks with the Democratic Party. We don’t need unity of the Democrats—we need working class unity! Only the united working class can defeat Trump and capitalism. The Democrats are part of the system, and their policies created the conditions for Trump’s rise to power in the first place.

All socialists can agree that the present decline in living standards, the instability of life, the erosion of rights, including abortion rights, can only be addressed by a workers’ government. However, to elect a government of our own, the working class needs its own mass party. Everyone who considers themselves a socialist should break with the Democrats and help build a mass socialist party of the working class. The building of such a party will transform the American working class from “a class in itself” to “a class for itself.”

Why do we not have a mass party of the working class in the US? There are many objective reasons why this has not yet happened, but there are also subjective reasons, including the policies followed by the American left. For example, since the end of World War II, the Communist Party USA and many who think capitalism can merely be reformed have stuck to their support for the Democrats. Such a policy not only helped to prevent the rise of a mass workers’ party, but it led to the further decimation of the left. Today’s socialists must learn from the mistakes of the past.

It is in this context that Bernie Sanders has written a new book called, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In, which examines his campaign and sets forth a future agenda for his movement. Part 2 of his book is subtitled: An Agenda for a New America: How We Transform our Country. Unfortunately, although the book has interesting anecdotes about Bernie’s life and the 2016 campaign, it does not provide a path to genuine socialism but leaves us with status quo. There are many important questions that are left unaddressed, including obvious ones such as: What is a revolution? Which class should run society? Does the working class need its own political party? If the answer is yes, can the Democrats be this party? What can socialists do if they win elections and form the government of a city or town? What can those who want to see an end to the dictatorship of big business do to help bring this about?

Which class should run society?

Bernie gives many interesting statistics to show who runs society today. He writes that “the top one-tenth of 1% owns as much wealth as the bottom 90%” and “the six largest banks issue more than two-thirds of all credit cards and more than 35% of all mortgages. They control more than 95% of financial derivatives and hold more than 40% of all bank deposits. Their assets have almost quadrupled since the mid-1990s and are now equivalent to nearly 60% of our [US] GDP.”

Bernie also explains that the media is heavily concentrated in a few hands. He wrote that in 1983, the 50 largest media corporations controlled 90% of the media and now, only six large corporations have the same percentage control. Sanders even quotes A. J. Liebling who said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

Sanders provides many interesting anecdotes about how the media distorted coverage of the 2016 campaign. As an example, he describes that he held a town meeting on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and hundreds of people came out to his meeting. Although the national media was present for the event, not one major story about this issue was produced by the TV networks.

So what does Bernie suggest we do? He proposes a number of taxes and regulations, especially with regard to the banks.  He would like to cap the size of big banks at 2% of GDP and claims that this would “break up” the ten largest banks in the country. Curiously, Sanders had no proposals for the media.

Again and again, Sanders travels down the failed path of regulating capitalism, rather than ending its rule. If reducing the size of the big banks means capitalism will have financial stability, how does he explain the bank failures in the 1890s or 1930s when banks were smaller and there were more of them? If a bank is restricted to a certain size, what would it do—refuse to do more business, as any success it has would mean an increase of its assets?

Monopolization is part of capitalism. If you break up the big banks, they will eventually find a way around the regulations or create the political power to repeal them.  There is no going back to an earlier period of capitalism—that is a reactionary utopia. Sanders should call for the nationalization of these ten large banks, under democratic workers’ control.  These banks could be transformed from tools of the superrich to exploit workers in the US and around the world, into a mighty instrument of the working class to plan the economy to meet human needs in a democratic fashion. In times of crisis, we saw how Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama nationalized the losses of the banks—why not nationalize the profits too? After all, these profits come from the unpaid labor of the working class.

Regarding the media, Sanders should call for the nationalization of all of the large media corporations. Television, radio, newspapers, magazines, highway billboards, the internet, and transmission satellites and stations are vital resources and should be under public control, with their use allocated proportionally to various political parties based on their election results, as well as to trade unions and neighborhood organizations controlled by working people. This would be infinitely more democratic and allow much more diverse expression of opinion and entertainment.

In the book’s introduction, Sanders writes: “This campaign was never just about electing a president of the United States . . . This campaign was about transforming America. It was about the understanding that real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom up. It takes place when ordinary people, by the millions, are prepared to stand up and fight for justice . . . That’s what the political revolution is about.”

Despite the radical-sounding veneer, we can see Sanders’ limitations. Phrases such as “fight for justice” are vague in the extreme.  A real revolution is a struggle over who should run society, in which the exploited fight and defeat their exploiters and win political and economic power.  Was the American Revolution of 1776 just simply a fight for justice in the abstract? No, it removed the British and ended the rule of the British capitalists, monarchy, and aristocracy. The real revolution that is required is one in which the working class majority attains collective ownership over the top 500 corporations and democratic control of the political power.

Bernie Sanders the socialist: a history with many gaps

sanders burlington 60sIf there is one thing Bernie would surely agree with, it is that we must study history to learn its lessons; otherwise, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. It would be interesting, for example, to trace his political journey and see what lessons can be learned from this. However, there is no attempt by Sanders to do this at all. Why?

Bernie calls himself a socialist and refers to his earlier years in the YPSL (Young People’s Socialist League), the youth wing of the Socialist Party in the 1960s. But nowhere does he define socialism. Sanders does not explain why he left the Socialist Party or what he thought its role should be in changing society. He explains that in the 1970s, he made a video history about the American Socialist, labor leader, and revolutionary, Eugene V. Debs. Sanders even claims to have a plaque honoring Debs in his Senate office. However, he does not explain what lessons he learned from Debs or detail any disagreements he might have with his ideas.

In addition to this, he speaks about his political history—his election as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont and the building of the “Progressive Party” to battle the Democrats and Republicans. But he does not explain why he now feels that the Democratic Party should be the party of the working class.

Bernie Sanders is a serious person. If there is nothing to learn from any of this, why does he mention it? Why mention Debs?  There can be only one explanation for these gaps. Sanders has moved more and more to accommodate himself to the capitalist system. Bernie never claimed to be a Marxist, thus his path was always the way of reformism. There is a logic to reformism. Reformism is ultimately the belief that the capitalist class rules and should continue to do so. It does not have confidence in the working class to run society. The vast majority should only hope to gain a few reforms, but should never challenge the ruling class for power. The way forward, it is alleged, is to think about how to convince the rulers that it is in their interest to provide more to the workers.

During his presidential campaign, Bernie repeatedly stated that the fact that the top 1% has more than the bottom 90% is not only immoral but unsustainable. Unsustainable for who? The capitalist class. But should workers want capitalism, a system of their exploitation and oppression to be maintained? Bernie’s accommodation to capitalism became clear when he was Mayor of Burlington and was solidified further once he was elected to Congress in 1990.

There is also a financial aspect to this. Many workers wonder why their union leaders start off as fighters and end up as transmission belts for the bosses. Historically, capitalism has fought the workers and socialist movements with bribes and repression. Debs could not be bought off, so he was put in jail for making speeches against US involvement in World War I—so much for the First Amendment!  However, a congressperson receives a salary, much higher than most workers earn, as well as many perks—White House dinners, international travel, meals in fancy restaurants with lobbyists at their expense, and more.

Sanders lived at or near the poverty level for much of his life and it is easy to see how Congress has made him much more comfortable.  The median income in Vermont is $53,000—less than a third of what a US Senator gets paid. A real workers’ representative would take a salary that was equivalent to what most workers receive and donate the rest to the movement to change society. Instead, Bernie just purchased a beautiful home on Lake Champlain.

Socialist Mayor of Burlington

Bernie Sanders describes how he moved to Vermont in the late 1960s and soon became involved in the Liberty Union Party, which considers itself “democratic socialist” and was independent of the Democrats and Republicans.  He ran for statewide office for this party several times, including for governor in 1976, when he won 6% of the vote statewide, but received 12% of the vote in Burlington, with higher percentages coming from the working class wards.

Sanders left the Liberty Union Party, and, with some friends, started a grassroots campaign for mayor. He was challenging a Democrat who was a five-term incumbent, and the entire establishment. In 1981, Sanders won the election by only ten votes but won the working class areas by two to one. This campaign shows that, given a mood for change, even a small group of determined activists can connect with the working class and achieve some success against the two big business parties.

Mayor Sanders predictably found stiff resistance from the Board of Aldermen, controlled by Democrats and Republicans. Sanders then helped his political allies create a Progressive Coalition in Vermont (later called the Progressive Party), which eventually won seats on the Board of Aldermen.

While he was Mayor of Burlington, Bernie claims the following as achievements:  A sister city program with a city in the USSR (Yaroslavl) and in Nicaragua (Puerto Cabezas) during its revolution; a Little League  Baseball program in a low-income neighborhood; a tree planting program and a waterfront park by Lake Champlain, where developers had wanted to put high-rise condominiums; establishing a municipal rooms-and-meals tax (this would tax people from outside the city who went to restaurants and hotels); and increased municipal revenue, in lieu of taxes, was received from the utility company, the cable TV company, the “non-profit” hospital and the University of Vermont.

Socialists certainly can support most of these reforms, although we note that taxing rooms and meals at hotels and restaurants is also a tax on the workers, wherever they live, who happen to uses these services. However, these things must be kept in perspective. A socialist supports all reforms that can improve the lives of working people. But the above reforms did not address unemployment, low wages, or expensive housing. Sanders’s subheading for this section was “Socialism in one city.” Socialists know that these problems cannot be solved in one country, let alone one city. The key thing is to use any elected positions socialists win to educate and mobilize the working class on broader bread and butter issues in opposition to oppose the state and national government and its pro-big business policies.

Sanders was mayor from 1981 through 1986. There is much Sanders could have learned from the example of the Marxist-led city council in Liverpool, in Great Britain, which was in office from 1983 to 1987. There are many national differences, but the Liverpool City Council created many jobs, built 4,000 public housing units, recreation centers, a park, and reduced the rent for local public housing.  They did this and exposed the anti-worker policies of the national government under the late Margaret Thatcher.

A workers’ party or the Democrats?

sanders surrenderAlthough this book is 450-pages long, Sanders does not explain the evolution of his thinking on the Democratic Party. When he ran for office in Vermont, he ran as a candidate of the Liberty Union Party. Then he ran as an independent for mayor and helped set up the Progressive Coalition and the Vermont Progressive Party, although he was not a member. He has always run for Congress as an independent. Before he was elected to Congress, his attitude towards the Democrats was clear: he saw them as a tool of the establishment and he wrote of their complicity in passing the reactionary program of Ronald Reagan.  Bernie wrote the following spot-on analysis in The Guardian in 1989 (the now-defunct American leftist publication, not the British paper of the same name), but he did not mention any of this in his book:


“We need a new, progressive political party in the U.S. because on almost every important issue the Democratic and Republican Parties, both controlled by Big Money, are indistinguishable. The ‘Reagan Revolution’ of the 1980s was not created solely by Ronald Reagan and the Republicans. It was brought about with the active and strong support of the Democratic Party which controlled the U.S. House of Representatives for eight out of Reagan’s eight years and the U.S. Senate for two out of Reagan’s eight years.

“During the Reagan era, both parties supported huge tax breaks for the rich—and major cutbacks for working people and the poor. Both parties supported a huge increase in military spending—and cutbacks in education, housing, and environmental protection. Both parties supported the illegal and immoral wars against Nicaragua—and efforts to weaken the trade union movement.

“We need a new, progressive political movement in this country because the Democrats and Republicans are not only incapable of solving any of the major problems facing this country, they are not even prepared to discuss them. On the most important issues facing this country the Democrats and Republicans have nothing to say.”

If one reads what Sanders wrote, what is remarkable is that the Democratic Party has moved even further to the right since 1989, and yet Sanders has moved toward the Democrats!

In 1984, Jesse Jackson ran for president on the Democratic Party line, trying to push the Democrats to the left. In 1988, when Jackson ran a second time, Sanders said that he disagreed with the strategy of running in the Democratic primaries and caucuses, but he did urge his supporters to support Jackson in Vermont.

The Democratic Party, like the Republican Party, is controlled by big money, big media, and the political machines. The working class needs its own party, controlled democratically through directly accountable political structures by the party’s members themselves.  Members and affiliated trade unions could debate and discuss the party’s program and have its own media.  Elected candidates would be held responsible to the party membership and would receive only the wages of an average worker.

Bernie never explains how this kind of democratic control could be imposed on the Democratic Party, or why workers do not need their own party. Eugene Debs had a lot to say about this. Once he became a socialist, Debs never supported the Democrats or Republicans and said that the workers should not throw away their vote to the bosses’ parties. He explained that he would rather vote for what he wanted and not get it, than vote for what he didn’t want and get it.

Bernie claims credit for moving the Democratic platform of 2016 to the left. Even if this is nominally true, what effect does this have in practice? The Democrats always fill their platform with promises that are never delivered. If Hillary Clinton had been elected and the Democrats won control of Congress, there would have been little difference with President Obama’s 2009 to 2010 period or Jimmy Carter’s 1977 to 1980 period. Incidentally, the 1976 Democratic party platform was quite “progressive,” as they were pushed to the left by the movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. Now, out of the White House, the Democrats will likely pose to the left, to try to capture the anti-Trump and anti-Republican mood. But as night follows day, they will disappoint millions when they eventually regain control of the federal government.

How mass parties are built: 2016, a missed opportunity

There are moments in history when the masses are ready to actively engage in politics and seek to change society to improve their lives. The working class in many countries has found a way to build parties that represent it as a class.  There are many different paths to the establishment of these parties, with different traditions in different countries. The British Labour party arose from the trade union movement and took years to establish itself as a major force. In Germany, the Social Democracy originated from the work of German socialists connected with Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.  In Venezuela recently, the PSUV was formed as part of the revolutionary process around Hugo Chavez. In Spain, various movements coalesced around Pablo Iglesias (a former Young Communist), and Podemos was born.

It is true that when Bernie called for a new party to the left of the Democrats in the past, not many people responded with active support. But times have changed. Nature abhors a vacuum and Bernie’s 2016 campaign became the vehicle of expression for the masses who yearned for something different. Several unions, including National Nurses United, the Communication Workers (CWA), and the Postal Workers (APWU) endorsed Sanders’ campaign.

If he had asked his supporters to form local branches, set up a party website, newspaper, and democratic structures, it could have adopted a program and contested for power against both the Democrats and Republicans—both deeply hated parties. He very well could have beaten Trump and elected some people to Congress.

Even if he had lost, this party could have become a pole of attraction, eventually winning more support as the two major parties have only austerity to offer. Instead, Bernie led people back to the discredited Democrats, a party he had described as “controlled by big money.” Bernie’s efforts to “take over” the Democrats just suffered a new defeat as the Democratic establishment installed their chosen candidate, Tom Perez as the DNC Chair.

Unless one is firmly grounded in ideas and a method that begins with a class analysis, all sorts of concessions will be made.  Marxism is a powerful set of ideas that allow us not only to understand but to change society.  Bernie has taken the path of class collaboration and confusion, but those who were inspired by his campaign do not have to follow him.


What is to be done today?

Workers and youth looking to bring about serious change should not be discouraged by the setbacks of the last year and a half. There is an ongoing movement against Trump and the Republicans, and a growing part of that movement does not have illusions in the Democrats. Many of those who do will start to draw very different conclusions when they experience Democratic Party governments in the future.

The post-World War II boom of American capitalism ended in the mid-1970s.  The “Great Recession” hit people hard.  Life has become unstable and the standard of living has dropped, especially for young people. The future under this system is bleak and millions are being radicalized by the reality of life under capitalism. Socialists must rise to the task and build our forces. It is encouraging the there are many members of the Democratic Socialists of America who are arguing for a break from the Democrats. Marxists are willing to work with any socialists who are trying to lay the foundation of a working class party, to ensure the victory of the working class in the coming battles.

There are important steps we can take today to bring about a socialist future.  The working class needs its own mass party and it needs far-sighted leadership committed to the victory of the working class. Such leadership cannot be improvised when it is needed—it must be built today. We must study theory and history, and participate shoulder-to-shoulder in the movement to meet others who are looking for these ideas. On this basis, we can lay the foundations for a truly transformative revolution in the future. If the working class has a self-sacrificing and determined leadership that has confidence in it, then once it starts to move, the masses will rid the world of the capitalist system and a new and better world can then be born. Help us build this leadership by joining the IMT!

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