Bernie Sanders’ recent capitulation to President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign — over a year-and-a-half away from the 2024 election — reveals the con that is both Sanders’ status as an “independent” senator, as well as his entire platform of so-called “democratic socialism.”
Bernie is a de facto Democrat
While nobody should be particularly surprised that Sanders is “all in” for Biden (nor, for that matter, that Sanders, at 81-years-old, has opted not to mount a third presidential bid of his own to challenge Biden in the primary), many “progressives” are nonetheless disappointed that Sanders did not, at the very least, attempt to secure some concessions from the Democratic incumbent before giving him his full-throated endorsement.
Other soc-dems of the Krystal Ball/Kyle Kulinski-variety, feel “betrayed” that Sanders did not offer his endorsement to Quixotic Democratic presidential candidate, Marianne Williamson, who seems to be positioning herself as his heir-apparent.
(Williamson, the author-turned-politician, made a previous bid for the Democratic nomination, in a considerably more crowded primary field, in 2020. Williamson, like Sanders, supports social-democratic capitalist reforms, but has horrible foreign policy positions. Williamson supports the Ukraine proxy war, is a Zionist supporter of Israel, and is hawkish on China.)
But Sanders — who has always been more of a careerist politician than his supporters like to admit — is not an idiot. He knows full well that Williamson will not be the Democratic nominee for president. Sanders (perhaps understandably) wants to remain in Biden’s good graces so he can retain his cabinet positions in the Senate and continue to utilize whatever influence he may have on his “friend, Joe.” He was never going to endorse a fringe character like Williamson — no matter how much he may privately admire her.
Sanders, at the end of the day, is a de facto member of the Democratic Party — and he has been for several decades, now. He votes with the Democrats roughly 95 percent of the time. He always supports the Democratic presidential nominee in the interest of “lesser evilism.”
I do not doubt Sanders had a genuine commitment to third-party politics when he was a young man and just beginning to embark on his foray into electoral politics. But those days are long gone. The “I” next to Sen. Sanders’ name is all but meaningless. He uses it for political branding purposes. Nothing more.
Bernie supports some excellent social democratic policies, don’t get me wrong. Implementation of any one of Sanders’ platform policies (free college education; universal health care; living wages; the Green New Deal, etc.) would go a long way toward improving the living standards of working-class Americans.
But, like so many social democrats, Sanders is ultimately a supporter of imperialism. Sure, he will feign an anti-war stance if the president launching a particular war happens to be a Republican (as was the case with Sanders’ much vaunted opposition to the Iraq war). But if the president is a Democrat, all bets are off. Thus, Sanders supported Bill Clinton’s NATO-bombing of socialist Yugoslavia, in 1999. And Sanders remains fully behind Biden’s current proxy war with Russia, in Ukraine.
Yet when I tried to point out Sanders’ troubling foreign policy positions during the 2016 presidential election, I was promptly denounced as an “ultra-leftist.” As if I am somehow personally responsible for Sanders’ voting record! Sorry, but a “left” that embraces imperialism is no serious left at all. And this is to say nothing of the gross misuse of the concept of “ultra-leftism.”
Sheep-dogging for the Democrats
Bernie Sanders is basically controlled opposition. He is a prime example of the phenomenon known as “sheep-dogging.” His role is to hold out the hope of a “progressive” or “left-wing” presidential challenger to the neoliberal Democratic Establishment in order to corral disaffected working-class voters back into the bourgeois Democratic Party.
Sanders, in this sense, is not all that different from previous “progressive” candidates, like Dennis Kucinich or Jesse Jackson who also attempted to “take back” or “realign” the Democratic Party. And when these “opposition” candidates inevitably fail to win the Democratic nomination (in what is essentially a rigged primary), they fulfill their role as “sheep dogs” by urging their supporters to hold their nose and vote for the neoliberal Establishment nominee — always in the interest of preventing the scary, “fascist” Republican from winning.
Williamson seems poised to fulfill the “sheep dog” role in 2024, though frankly I do not anticipate she will have the same influence and draw the same amount of support as Sanders. The petty-bourgeois Williamson lacks Sanders’ name-recognition as well as his overall charisma. Furthermore, should the 2024 race wind up being a rematch between Biden and Trump (as it is already shaping up to be), the Democratic Party may feel less pressure to rely on a “sheep dog” candidate, in the first place. The DNC may feel that the “Anybody-But-Trump” mindset will be more than sufficient to garner the reluctant support of even the most disaffected working-class voters.
Left-Wing Anticommunism: An Infantile Disorder
Sanders is widely credited with popularizing the socialist tendency of “democratic socialism” — though in truth the trend precedes him. Democratic socialism is little more than reform-oriented social democracy. The words are merely flipped around. Sure, democratic socialists often use more “radical” and “woke” rhetoric. They may even cite Marx or Lenin, here and there. But at the end of the day, they are not Marxists. Democratic socialists merely want to tame capitalism. Marxists want to abolish it.
Indeed, most democratic socialists reject examples of actually existing socialism in countries like Cuba, Venezuela, China, and the former Soviet Union.
Sanders himself was upfront about this anti-communist stance. “When I talk about democratic socialism,” Sanders said during a prime-time “town-hall”-style campaign stop in 2016, “I’m not looking at Venezuela. I’m not looking at Cuba. I’m looking at countries like Denmark and Sweden.”
Never mind the fact that neither Denmark nor Sweden are socialist countries. Both are capitalist.
In fact, the ruling-classes in both countries have been steadily eroding the robust social safety-net the working-classes there have relied upon for decades. And the elites’ success with this right-wing counter-offensive is largely due to the absence of the Soviet Union. For decades, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries served as a bulwark against the Scandinavian right. With full-fledged socialist states right next door, the Nordic ruling-class felt compelled to offer workers and the unemployed some social democratic concessions in order to prevent a revolution in their own backyard.
This is what the international working-class lost when the Soviet Union was crushed, 32 years ago.
“Without the Soviet Union as a viable alternative to capitalism,” write Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny in their 2004 book, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, “ — social welfare, the welfare state, the public sector, Keynesianism, the ‘third way’ — have come under attack. In all countries progressive and social democratic parties have staggered under the pressure of an emboldened neo-liberal right. Since 1991, world poverty and inequality have grown by leaps and bounds.”
Thus, democratic socialism/social democracy is a tool the capitalists use to fool and pacify the working class. It is a way of papering over capitalism’s gross inequities and inherent flaws.
Social democrats’ outright dismissal of “actually existing socialism” is rooted in what Midwestern Marx’s Carlos Garrido calls the “purity fetish.” Democratic socialists like Sanders reject real-life examples of successful socialism as “distortions of Marxism,” “state capitalism,” or, my favorite meaningless pejorative, “Stalinism.”
“But we in the enlightened West would get it right,” the Trotskyist soc-dems insist. As a result, as Michael Parenti wryly points out, these anti-communist leftists “support every revolution except for the ones that succeed.”
Soc-dems scoff at “authoritarian” forms of socialism — while completely ignoring the very real historical, political, and economic factors that may have led states like Cuba, the USSR, and China to undertake such “Stalinist” measures in the first place.
As Parenti writes of the purity-fetish lens these anti-communist leftists apply to the Soviet Union, in his classic book, Blackshirts and Reds:
Sorely lacking within the U.S. Left is any rational evaluation of the Soviet Union, a nation that endured a protracted civil war and a multinational foreign invasion in the very first years of its existence, and that two decades later threw back and destroyed the Nazi beast at enormous cost to itself. In the three decades after the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviets made industrial advances equal to what capitalism took a century to accomplish — while feeding and schooling their children rather than working them fourteen hours a day as capitalist industrialists did and still do in many parts of the world.
Bernie Sanders has done an incalculable service to the modern left by introducing an entire generation to the concept of socialism — however ill-defined. But the working-class cannot be fooled again by Sanders’ bait-and-switch. Joe Biden and the Democrats do not deserve our votes. Biden has done less than nothing for working-class Americans. Workers need their own political party — one completely independent of the two capitalist parties.
Don’t fall for Bernie’s “sheepdogging” act, again.