By John Leslie
Once again, advocates for independent working class political action are confronted with activists who argue that a central arena of struggle today is between the Democratic Party “establishment” and the “progressive” and working class base of the party. Many of these activists — particularly in the Democratic Socialists of America — argue that the Sanders campaign should get credit for helping to raise popular awareness of socialism.
Thousands of people have become interested in socialist ideas during Sanders’ two recent election campaign. This is an important development. However, the definition of “socialism” among this layer of folks is often blurred almost beyond recognition. Sanders’ Democratic Socialism resembles New Deal reforms under Roosevelt, or Social Security, or breaking up the big banks. Marxists don’t think socialism is simply the New Deal or snow ploughs — socialism is the democratic ownership and control of the means of production by the working class itself. This means building a democratic state based on the direct rule of workers and oppressed people.
What about the reforms Sanders advocates for — like Single Payer or the minimum wage? Shouldn’t revolutionaries fight for reforms?
Of course, revolutionaries fight for reforms. However, we see this fight not as an end in itself but as part of a larger struggle to advance the struggles of working people with an eye towards building real working class power.
As George Breitman argued:
“Revolutionary Marxists, starting with Marx, have never been opposed to the struggle for reforms; on the contrary, for revolutionaries to oppose such struggles or refuse to join and try to lead them would be to doom themselves to permanent isolation and futility. … The essence of Marxist strategy, of any revolutionary strategy in our time, is to combine the struggle for reforms with the struggle for revolution. This is the only way in which to build a revolutionary party capable of providing reliable leadership to the masses and of enabling them in revolutionary situations to make the transition, in consciousness and in action, from the struggle for reforms to the struggle for power and revolution.”
The answer offered to any political criticism of support to Sanders is that the critic is a “purist” who doesn’t understand Marxist strategy. Worse, we are “sectarians” who are cutting ourselves off from the masses who support Bernie. Of course, revolutionaries want to reach the large numbers of people who support Sanders. However, we are obligated to do so without making concessions to reformist ideas and without creating illusions in the Democratic Party.
There is also another pitfall that must be avoided: the call for a “party of the 99%,” which, according to its promoters, is an attempt to popularize the idea of a working class party. The formulation itself blurs the distinctions between classes. It sets up a distinction between the so-called “billionaire class” and the rest of us. A “party of the 99%” is by definition a populist formation and not a workers’ party.
Workers and oppressed people need a party of their own. This party has to be based on a clean break with the Democrats without concessions to the lesser evil. Such a party would fight for the interests of the oppressed and exploited at the ballot box and in the streets. Ultimately, real social transformation will not come by way of a parliamentary road but through the independent mobilization and organization of the masses.
This movement will undoubtedly include many people who support Sanders now. The task of socialists is to win these people to an independent class orientation without reinforcing illusions in reformism or the Democrats.