Bernie & The Sandernistas
I first heard of Bernie Sanders in 1990. I was on the Labor [sic] Day march in Washington DC. It was on my first trip to the US and I’d travelled down from New York with friends on the United Auto Workers Union District 65 bus. On a hot Saturday afternoon in August what struck me most about the parade was the choreography and the colour. The Auto Workers and their families marched together in one block, the Teamsters in another, then the Longshoremen, Ladies Garment workers, Local Government employees, Teachers union, each contingent had their own allocated position. In Britain everyone just mingled together in any old order. I remember thinking how impressive each union was in its own agreed, separate colour. Most memorable of all were the United Mineworkers of America dressed in their battle fatigue camouflaged t-shirts and trousers. As I recall they were even allowed to carry rifles, for I remember the march being choreographed to halt for a moment to let them fire off two rounds in tribute to a strike they were involved in back in New Mexico or Arizona. Safe to say this was like no labour march I had been on.
I like to gather up all the political leaflets and newspapers which tend to be published for events like these as souvenirs. Later as I travelled on to Chicago with new friends from the ILGWU – after regaling them with my stories of Scotland and demonstrating a Highland fling dressed in one woman’s ‘plaid’ [tartan] shawl pretending it was a kilt – I read about this Congressman elected on ‘an openly Socialist ticket’ in Vermont. His name was Bernie Sanders. I was both intrigued and encouraged by his achievement because it seemed so unlikely in a country dominated by capitalism and its two big business parties. I bought his book ‘Outsider in the House’ soon afterwards. Ten years later, when I was in Parliament myself, I invited him to lead the May Day parade in Edinburgh and he nearly came.
Sanders served four terms as Mayor of Burlington, three terms as a US Congressman and has just been re-elected for the third time to serve as the Independent socialist Senator for Vermont for another 6 years. You might think there would be widespread celebration of his achievements across the Left, particularly with Donald Trump in the White House? There isn’t. For he induces only muted enthusiasm. This book by Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of the respected Left-wing magazine ‘Counterpunch’, explains why. And it makes for uncomfortable reading for erstwhile ‘Sandernistas’ like me.
For crucial to his electoral success in the tiny, rural, white, North-Eastern state of Vermont is the fact the Democrats don’t run against him. As the state’s former Governor Howard Dean put it, why should they when ‘Bernie votes with the Democrats 98% of the time.’ His decision to seek their nomination for President in 2016, despite not being a party member seems quixotic, but is rendered possible because Sanders formally joined the ‘Democratic Party Caucus’ in Congress. St Clair and most of the Left were not impressed by this decision 20 years ago nor his recent Presidential gambit.
‘Sanders had a choice’ says St Clair. ‘He could have run as the outsider he claimed to be. He could have run as an Independent. He could have run as a Socialist or a Green. He could have been a threat to the status quo. But he wilted. Either because at heart Sanders really is a Democrat or because he is a political coward who feared retribution [in Vermont], he gave credence to a party that has brutalized nearly every progressive policy he claimed to champion. Meanwhile, truly independent campaigns, the ones that forcefully challenge the neo-liberal dogmas and imperialist militarism of the Democratic Party from the outside, are crushed, their candidates and supporters vilified and demonized. Go ask Ralph Nader.’
Despite running an energetic and admirable campaign that put the ‘s’ word back into mainstream US politics, inspired millions to attend his rallies and raised $120m in small donations, most of the Left in America remain unimpressed by Sanders. They believe his decision to run for the Democrat nomination sowed foolish illusions in the party of Hilary Clinton as the vehicle for socialist change. Moreover, they assert, his own ‘socialist’ credibility was undermined when he publicly endorsed the lamentable reactionary warmonger from Wall Street. Yet that, insists St Clair, was the inevitable outcome of his ill-advised decision. Sanders was booed by his own delegates at the Democratic Convention for endorsing her. ‘Sandernistas’ everywhere were crying when Bernie took the podium to betray their ‘revolution’ and endorse HRC. That other standard-bearer of the Left in the ‘Democratic Party Caucus’ Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts did the same.
So, what credibility does Sanders have now as the voice of downtrodden working-class America? None, answers St Clair bluntly. ‘Trump prevailed because he was willing, indeed eager, to burn down the Republican Party house. Sanders failed, in large part, because he wasn’t, even when the Democratic Party house, run with the ruthless calculation of any casino, conspired against him.’ ‘Even though Sanders markets himself as an ‘independent socialist’ in fact, he rarely dissents against the Democratic Party orthodoxy,’ argues St Clair ‘especially when it comes to military intervention. Sanders is an old-fashioned liberal, not a revolutionary socialist.’
His record on Foreign Policy is also heavily criticised. St Clair records for example that ‘The Bern’ supported the occupation of Afghanistan, voted for sanctions on Iraq, the bombing of Serbia and the bloated military budget. He even described Hugo Chavez as ‘a dead Communist dictator’. And on the thorny issue of Syria he quixotically argues ‘The Saudis need to take the lead in the fight against ISIS and get their troops in there on the ground’!
The respected political commentator and author Alexander Cockburn is equally scathing of ‘Burlington Bernie’. ‘The deeper you look at Sanders’ he writes ‘the less substance you see. In reality the Sanders revolution was over before it started. The revolutionary aspiration expired the moment Sanders decided to run in the Democratic primaries, instead of as an independent.’
St Clair’s book concludes therefore that Sanders’ 2016 campaign was ‘a failed revolution, a movement which sparked into life and flared brightly for 10 months before being snuffed out by its strange and stubborn leader.’
Reading this book rekindled for me the age-old question whether the working class should devote itself to building a party of its own rather than trying to make the Democrats into a progressive force? Sanders clearly believes in the latter course of action. Others believe he should have split with the Democrats and stood as an Independent socialist. And in not doing so the octogenarian left little behind for future generations of socialists to build upon. That is a real pity, for his Presidential campaign gathered unprecedented numbers of young people around his socialist message and another opportunity has been lost for workers in the USA to lay the foundations for their own party. It’s a loss the tiny socialist movement in America can ill afford.
Review by Dr. Anthony Thomas
Book review: ‘Bernie and the Sandernistas – Field Notes from a Failed Revolution’ by Jeffrey St. Clair. Published by Counterpunch, California, USA £12.99 108ppb