Sanders’s Socialism and the Third American Revolution

On November 19, Bernie Sanders delivered an hour-long landmark speech at Georgetown University. After months of mass interest and media condescension to the self-described socialist candidate for President of the United States, he was to deliver a definition for his “democratic socialism.”

The capitalist media has taken great delight in reminding everyone that “less than half of Americans would not vote for a socialist.” This is a dishonest presentation of facts. The Gallup Poll in question found that 47% of Americans would vote for a socialist candidate, as opposed to 50% against. This was unmistakably a gain for the idea of socialism and must be considered a grave omen for the future of capitalism. In fact, this month a poll was released giving a majority favorability to socialism among Democratic voters, even among those who support Clinton. This in a country where the word “socialism” has officially been written off by the media, political institutions, and academia.

In 2010 only 44% supported the right for same-sex couples to marry. Today that number has leapt to around 60%, and the American ruling class has swiveled to accommodate this mood before it could further challenge the system, legalizing gay marriage with a Supreme Court ruling. The next five years promise to be no less radical than the last. Upheaval awaits in all spheres of life. The coming period will demonstrate yet again that moods in society don’t emerge gradually in linear form, but simmer and then explode in dialectical transformations of quantity into quality and vice versa.

Many workers and youth are attracted to Sanders because he attacks Wall Street, he is the only mainstream candidate to identify as a socialist, and he calls for a “political revolution” against “the billionaire class.”  His campaign raises a number of fairly radical discussions in ordinary American households. Where will his program of reforms lead? How is it achievable? And what exactly is socialism?

“Reforming Wall Street”

Sanders quotes President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), who, surely unconsciously, echoes Frederick Engels: “Necessitous men are not free men.” In other words, freedom is the mastery of necessity instead of enslavement to it. For people, the necessities of human life are a first priority. As Sanders’s appreciable collection of statistics and economic data demonstrates, capitalism is, even by its own standards, failing to provide those necessities to working people. Sanders has a “vision” of the opposite.

However, he regards the word socialism not as a different system than capitalism but a moderating influence on it, or an epithet that critics of fairness use to deride steps forward. He says, “I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.”

His “fair deal” is a series of measures in many ways less audacious than the concessions given by FDR in the 30s & 40s: Medicare-for-all single-payer healthcare, free college tuition, a program of Keynesian state investment, $15-an-hour minimum wage “over the next few years,” immigration reform, maternal leave, reforms to the criminal justice system, and an end to the degradation of the environment. A litany of concerns could be noted on the limitations of each item as long as they promise not to touch “the means of production,” but perhaps the most revealing demand of his is this one: “government policy which does not allow the greed and profiteering of the fossil fuel industry to destroy our environment and our planet.” What is this government policy?

A look at the “Issues” section on his website returns similarly vague and abstract language. The “Key Actions” subsection lists several measures he supported as a senator. Each is within the confines of Democratic Party legislation. None have registered a dent in the alarming pace of climate change. This should not be surprising. We cannot change what we do not control, and we cannot control what we do not own. When “90 companies caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions” (Guardian), it’s clear that there is no solution to the environmental crisis as long as the capitalists own the means to produce and to pollute.

His website reads, “Let us not forget: It was the greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior on Wall Street that nearly drove the economy off of the cliff seven years ago.” He repeats this point in his speech. This is not necessarily incorrect. But the way he understands the “greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior” cast them as problems that can be disciplined out of the market. Really they are the nature of the market itself, hard-wired into capitalism. He says in his speech, “Innovation, entrepreneurship, and business success should be rewarded. But greed for the sake of greed is not something that public policy should support.” To this we ask: what is greed for the sake of, if not itself?

Before there is “[capitalist] innovation, entrepreneurship, and business success,” there is the pursuit of profits by individual capitalists, at the expense of the workers, other capitalists, and eventually the capitalist system itself. Commodities are produced, not for the good of their use to society or even individuals, but to be exchanged on the market. The words “Reforming Wall Street” are featured on his website. On Wall Street, the success of a corporation is determined by the return of profit, or “greed.” This is a law of capitalist economics, unavailable to the review of legislation. What are arguments and laws to “greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior?”

In class society, state power is the exclusive privilege of the ruling class, which owns the means of production. Sanders’s policies are drawn from the idea that the state can tame Wall Street. The opposite is true. The capitalist state is not just domesticated by Wall Street, it was bred for it in the first place. When Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” he means his brand of socialism obeys the forms of democracy set by capitalism. The paradox is that capitalism only offers a form of democracy that cannot threaten it. When seriously threatened, the capitalist class takes away democracy altogether. What kind of democracy is that which obeys the command of a minority? And what socialism is possible from it? Marxists say that the working class should own and control the means of production. And not by the state we have now, but through the state organ of mass workers’ assemblies. After all, as Bernie himself says, “the working families who produce the wealth of America”—the working class—are who produce the wealth in capitalist society.

For Marxists, socialism is revolutionary, international, and a system unable to exist alongside capitalism. History has shown again and again that without it, no other form of “socialism” or democracy can last for long. A ready example would be Scandinavian social-democracy, the famous inspiration of Sanders’s socialism. On the basis of mass struggles, labor parties, and an anxious proximity to the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, the capitalists were forced to give huge concessions in the post–World War II economic boom. In today’s capitalist crisis, many of those gains have already been rolled back. What remains is under ferocious assault. To speak of “Scandinavian-style socialism” in 2015 is really to refer to American-style capitalism.

FDR, Tsipras, and Debs

American workers have lacked Europe’s scale of class struggle and mass parties of the working class. However, a similar dynamic of reforms and counterreforms prevailed in the United States around the post–World War II economic boom, its stagnation in the 70s and 80s, and the crisis of today. FDR’s New Deal program set the precedent of the concessions of the 50s and 60s under presidents like Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson. But instead of a warrior for reforms, the real FDR was a cynical strategist for the ruling class, only granting reforms in the face of mass unrest, and explaining to the rest of the elite that the alternative was socialist revolution. And while the New Deal partially relieved capitalism of social pressure thanks to the complicity of the labor leadership and the Communist Party—which at that time had influence—economic relief would only come about through World War II and the postwar reconstruction period. Keynes’ ideal of paying one worker to dig a hole and another to refill it was outdone by the demolition and reconstruction of whole continents, a grotesque confirmation of capitalism’s obsolescence. In crediting FDR for reforms forced upon him by the pressure of labor, Sanders commits the historical error of confusing effect for cause. By placing himself in FDR’s footsteps, he commits the political error of pledging himself to the ruling class.

It is strange to hear someone declare “Black Lives Matter” after expressing admiration for Roosevelt, a president who knowingly promoted a member of the Klan to the Supreme Court (Hugo Black), ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, and continued a Depression-era policy of the forced expulsion of over a million Mexican immigrants. While Marxists are equally against the deportation of all, regardless of their documents, it’s worth noting the hypocrisy of the ruling class—the majority expelled were legally American citizens.

A more appropriate comparison for Sanders can be found in very recent history, in fact, in ongoing events. He is not alone in the world. Across the Atlantic, Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party in Britain, Pablo Iglesias of Podemos in Spain, and Tsipras of SYRIZA in Greece exploded upon the political establishment as the workers’ struggle inevitably found an expression. Without an American labor party, Sanders is playing the same role in a distorted way. A key difference is that he is running, not in a mass workers’ party, but in a capitalist party. At the same time, the potential he expresses draws from the same source—the politicization and radicalization of ordinary working people all across the globe.

Alexis Tsipras’ SYRIZA, the prototype of this phenomenon and the only to get into office so far, should be studied. SYRIZA was elected into government in January of this year on the back of a mass movement and with what appeared to be a fighting program against austerity. But within six months, Tsipras had done a complete 180° and implemented the same austerity he campaigned against, tear gassed his former supporters, and purged his party to a rump. As a reformist who swore never to break with capitalism, in the final analysis he based himself on the limits of capitalism. In today’s economic crisis, those limits require attacks on the working class.

It is no accident that even as Sanders correctly laid the blame on Wall Street, he never otherwise explained the crisis itself. To do so would incriminate the market he believes he can rehabilitate and admit the terms it imposes on him. As Tsipras discovered, capitalism in crisis cannot afford to concede reforms as it could in bygone times. Sanders neglects to mention that under FDR the US was the planet’s largest lender. Today it is the number one borrower. Marxists enthusiastically fight for reforms, but the ultimate conclusion of such fights, even sooner in these conditions, is a question of who holds power. Reformism, swearing itself against revolution, pledges itself to work within the limits of the present system, which can only lead to betrayal.

A third figure bears mention, the American socialist Eugene Debs, who once received nearly a million votes as the candidate of the Socialist Party for the same office that Sanders is campaigning for today. Reportedly, Sanders’s Senate Office contains a plaque honoring Debs. On numerous occasions he’s referred to Debs as a personal hero and even produced a documentary on him in 1979. Yet in his speech on “American idealism,” Sanders cited the Pope twice, FDR nine times, and Debs not once. The words of Debs hang over his secret admirer: “The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.”

Eugene Debbs

Sanders’s entry into the election has legitimized the word socialism in many American households and provided a reflection for the ordinary worker to see that they are not alone in their grievances. At the same time, his entry into the Democratic Party encourages mistrust in what is neither democratic nor a party but a fundraising network of the rich and one half of the electoral fig leaf of the dictatorship of the bankers and bosses. The value of capitalist elections is not that they will better conditions, but that they can politicize and organize the only force that can, the working class. Like Sanders himself explained in August:

“And now let me tell you something that no other candidate for president will tell you. And that is no matter who is elected to be president, that person will not be able to address the enormous problems facing the working families of our country. They will not be able to succeed because the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of campaign donors is so great that no president alone can stand up to them. That is the truth. People may be uncomfortable about hearing it, but that is the reality. And that is why what this campaign is about is saying loudly and clearly: It is not just about electing Bernie Sanders for president, it is about creating a grassroots political movement in this country.”

The conclusion is painfully unsaid. American workers need a party of their own, a mass party of labor. Only by breaking with the two-party system can we get a real “political revolution.” Throughout his Georgetown speech, Sanders returned again and again to the idea that the political process has been corrupted. Marxists see the political process under capitalism as naturally this way, not corrupted or broken by lobbyists, but something always the instrument of their employers. According to Sanders, an alleged intrusion of “corporate money” has turned the system against ordinary people. His answer is electoral reform. But when did these rumored decades of idyllic democracy and social harmony take place in America? One would search in vain for such a past. The problem is not that the political process was recently corrupted, but that the crisis has unmasked its original rottenness. To put illusions that such an era existed and can be returned to means concretely to put the mask back on for the stability of the system.

Sanders is correct to cite the politicization of ordinary Americans as an urgent task. Marxists believe that the supposed apathy of the masses is due not to their shirking some civil duty, nor the regulations of campaign finance, but the natural result of American workers having no party of their own. Instead of looking backwards, and falsely, to an Edenic America prior to the Citizens United ruling, we must point to the necessity of a mass workers’ party. Furthermore, if we are to seriously confront the obstacles against the political lives of ordinary people, we cannot ignore the conditions of their everyday life, those of capitalism. Ultimately what is necessary is not just a revolution of political forms, but a social revolution in the way society is organized.

Sanders is inspiring the basis for a mass movement, but rather than organize it, he is leading his supporters to the choice of voting for Clinton a year from now or staying at home demoralized. The unlikely could happen, the Democratic Party machinery, owned and operated by finance capital, could be forced by events to acknowledge a candidate unwanted by them but popular among the electorate. But even then, the forecast is unattractive. Without a mass organization under him, isolated in the political folds of the “billionaire class,” and under all the pressure of bourgeois “public” opinion, what will the “billionaire class” permit him to do?

Revolution, an American Tradition

Revealingly, Sanders ended his speech, not with a fiery call to action for the masses, but with pragmatic words of wisdom for American imperialism regarding Islamic State. He outlines a foreign policy strategy that is essentially a continuation of the trajectory already forced upon Washington by events. To quote Trotsky, “Foreign policy is everywhere and always a continuation of domestic policy.”  The beneficiary is the same ruling elite—the capitalist class that profits alike from war industries in times of conflict and the “normal” exploitation of foreign markets in times of peace.  NATO is an alliance of governments controlled by the rich, led by the US “billionaire class,” and has the same sort of imperialist actions on its record as Sanders criticizes the CIA for in Latin America. A solution to the problems of the Middle East or anywhere else cannot be solved by NATO, the UN, or any similar entity.


Marxists believe that Islamic fundamentalism is not a “struggle for the soul of Islam,” the destruction of which “must be done primarily by Muslim nations,” but a Frankenstein monster of imperialism that can only be put down by workers’ struggle. The life development of Islamic fundamentalism can be traced with the region’s class struggle: the rise and fall of the 1968 revolution in Pakistan, 1978 in Afghanistan, 1979 in Iran, 1967 in Indonesia, Nasser in Egypt, and the Arab Spring. In every case imperialism, particularly American imperialism, animated the reactionary monster of Islamic fundamentalism to protect the interests of capitalism. Today nations like Syria and Iraq, historically the territory of a cradle of civilization, graphically illustrate Rosa Luxemburg’s slogan, “Socialism or Barbarism!” The role of the original financiers and suppliers of groups like Islamic State must be put front and center.

Socialism is international or it is nothing. Marxists do not long for a return to the bygone glory days of post–World War II American capitalism, an era of McCarthyism, Taft-Hartley antilabor laws, Jim Crow segregation, the war in Vietnam, and a cornucopia of imperialist intrigue from Latin America to the Middle East. To restrict the workers’ struggle in this country to the realization of surface-level reform is to leave the rest of the world’s workers to exploitation and oppression at the hands of “our” ruling class. And to win a reform in the terrain of the enemy is to invite them to take it away at a later date of their choosing. The interests of American workers and the rest of the international working class are united in the need to overthrow Wall Street, the world citadel of plunder and bondage.

We support many of the reforms that Sanders calls for, but at the same time believe the only way to truly win them is to fight for a new society. Rather than try to stabilize the system for the capitalist class, which is impossible anyways, we aim for a world with plenty for all, misery for none, a world where the potential of ordinary individuals can become actual, and one that’s perfectly possible, in fact necessary, by the present development of industry and culture. The country that brought the world NATO and Wall Street also brought it the grand opening of an era of revolution in 1776, and one of the last progressive feats of world capitalism in the American Civil War, another revolution in its own right. The American people can return to their roots with the overthrow of their capitalist class, which would be the Third American Revolution and “game over” for capitalism as a world system.

The working class stands as the vast majority of the population, and their labor is what allows society and industry to run. This is the class which can build a new society: socialism, a system of the democratic control of the commanding heights of the economy by the working class. In order for this to happen, the working class will need its own party, and this party must have a program that does not stop short of the final goal.  In the words of Eugene Debs, we are “opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” Ordinary people who are seriously interested in change are discussing ideas at their workplaces, homes, college and high school campuses, and elsewhere across the country. The Sanders campaign offers an indication of the potential of future events. Now is the time to organize into a fighting force to capture that potential. If you are interested in these ideas, we invite you to learn more and consider joining the International Marxist Tendency to fight for a socialist world.

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