"A turning point in American political life"

Submitted by Gemma_S on 1 April, 2016 - 2:20 Author: Traven Leyshon

Traven Leyshon, Vermont Teamsters/AFL-CIO leader and organiser for the Sanders campaign, spoke at Workers' Liberty's London forum about the Bernie Sanders campaign.


We are at a real turning point in American political life, and that is very exciting.

It is also a challenging time for US Marxists, forcing us to rethink our preconceptions about how we might break the stranglehold of the two-party system so as to help build a mass working-class party. I have certainly been organising outside of my comfort zone. And as someone who has been active for 50 years in unsuccessful attempts to build a mass left-wing party, a workers' party, some humility is called for.

Sanders has taken on the entire Democratic Party leadership, the mainstream media, Wall Street and other powerful interests that fund the political action committees, most of the political elite opinion shapers, as well as the leadership of major US unions like the American Federation of Teachers and Service Employees International Union, and has still developed considerable momentum.

Who would have predicted this outcome even five months ago? Sanders' momentum has rocked the political world. It has exposed Hillary Clinton's vulnerabilities and underscored the deep anger of working people with Wall Street and the coporate neoliberal politicians of both parties.

This tremendous opportunity won't last forever. If Marxists abstain from the Sanders campaign then we will have failed the huge numbers of youth and working-class people who are being drawn to the Sanders campaign, most of whom have no patience for the Democratic Party establishment, much less see themselves in an ongoing fight to realign or take on the leadership of the Party. We need to connect with this audience if we are to accomplish any sort of breakthrough for left politics. Any significant advance in independent working class politics requires a fracturing away of the Democratic Party's mass base.

Bashkar Sunkar, the editor of Jacobin mag, is right to observe that as flawed as Sanders is, he is better in most ways than the US left deserves.

While the last few years have seen a rising level of struggles, with movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy, the Chicago teachers strike and the uprising in Wisconsin, we haven't had the intensity of labour struggles and social movements that are really large enough to lead to the emergence of a candidate like Sanders. Through this campaign a significant sector of the working class has become politicised to an extent not seen in generations. He is a sort of nice historical accident that we need to make the best of.

The most important development driving the current polarisation of American society and the rise of a new politics is the economic crisis of 2008, the Great Recession.

The youth and working class energy that fuels Sanders' campaign has demonstrated the massive support far-reaching demands including tuition-free education at public colleges and universities, single-payer health care, expanded social security, strident opposition to the corporate "free trade" agenda, a $15 minimum wage, breaking up the big banks, and a "political revolution" against the billionaire class.

The party establishments that control the Democratic and Republican parties on behalf of the ruling class have temporarily lost control of the script. Sanders is receiving mass support for the message of Occupy: the 99% versus the 1%.

In the abstract, Sanders' programmatic reference point is Franklin D Roosevelt's proposal for an Economic and Social Bill of Rights, the platform of his 1944 campaign, the high point of modern liberalism. Yet I think it's right to understand that the core of his programme is a broad social-democratic one that we should support as immediate demands.

Struggles and demands for even limited reforms will come into conflict with the Democratic Party as the ruling class isn't willing to accept an expansion of the welfare state. A lot of Sanders supporters don't understand, that this programme goes beyond the Clinton dynasty and therefore exposes the nature of the Democratic Party. Given the context, Sanders’ demands take on a more radical character: in some sense the character of transitional demands, in Trotsky's sense.

So Sanders is, if anything, a fighting or class-struggle social democrat. He has a lifelong history of backing collective action, union organising and labour struggles. For example, he came out in support of the 1 April day of action for Chicago for Education Justice called by the Chicago Teachers Union.

Sanders says there is a billionaire class who benefit from the status quo, and we need to take them on. Emphasing that antagonism is an important part of the campaign, and it points to a level of class consciousness and class organisation that we haven't seen expressed in any mass electoral effort in the United States since Eugene Debs.

As a politician, Sanders is nearly unique in his ability to speak to the concerns of the white working class. White working class people, especially men, have felt abandoned by the Democratic Party for a whole variety of understandable reasons, some racist (see the series of Dan LaBotz in New Politics magazine), particularly with the right turn led by the Democratic Leadership Council, formed in 1985 to move the Democrats in an even more pro-corporate direction.

Bill and Hillary Clinton and Obama exemplify this Third Way approach, for example pushing free trade agreements, without providing the millions of blue-collar workers who lose their jobs as a consequence with any means of getting new ones that pay at least as well. They also stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, and failed to reform labour laws.

The Labor for Bernie formation, an independent, grassroots, rank and file based network, is an important development, an effort to hold the bureaucrats accountable to supporting only candidates that actually support union policies. It is implicitly linked to the Labor Notes network.

Significant rank and file rebellions over internal democracy inside our unions and what programme and objectives should drive labour's political choices are developing around this election. The disgust with bureaucrat driven, transactional, business-as-usual politics poses the need, and possibility, to build rank-and-file networks within labour that demand a real democratic process to get endorsements. Our job as socialists in the labour movement includes a strategy of fostering cracks in labour's slavish alignment with the Democratic Party establishment. A fissure over Sanders endorsement is a good thing. A mass, independent working class party will not be created in this country without the activity of the labour militants who are supporting the Sanders campaign. This is also the milieu that grasps the necessary task of building the political capacities of workers — something far beyond the scope of any electoral insurgency.

The Labor for Bernie initiative is showing strength. A large number of unions and labour activists have had it with establishment politics and may be open to an independent course in the period ahead.

Key unions, the APWU, ATU. NNU, CWA, and many locals have endorsed Sanders in open defiance of their internationals' endorsement of Clinton. While many unions plunged into early endorsements for Clinton, without taking the time or trouble to see how their members might feel, the AFL-CIO hasn't yet done so, surely in part because of pro-Sanders sentiment within significant sectors of labour.

A life long political independent, Sanders is running as a Democrat because in the current political conjuncture that was the only way to connect with millions of people, including those who had already given up on the two-party system. But Sanders is competitive because he has organised an internet-based army and because he is getting huge support in primary voting from independents and youth who are voting for the first time

More people call themselves independents, due to years of disenchantment with, the policies of the two-party system. They are disgusted with a system that no longer even pretends to hear their needs or their voice.

This organising moment is not just about Sanders or even about who is the nominee at the Democratic convention in July, this is about building a movement that will be ongoing. Sanders is serious about a political revolution that lasts beyond his campaign, but while he encourages social movements, was a member of Labor Party Advocates, and often supports independent candidates, he is not a movement organiser. The question for the left is how to help this movement flourish after November.

Some of the most jaded leftists are those who supported the Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition campaigns in 1984 and 1988. Jackson, despite winning eight million votes in 1988, chose to demobilise the ostensibly independent Rainbow Coalition organisation after losing the Democratic nomination, so no ongoing coalition went on to continue working around issues of economic and racial justice after the campaign ended.

Some of us learned from that experience and there are good reasons to think we can build something ongoing.

Our job is to win as many Sanders supporters as possible to keep the fight going through joining anti-austerity struggles, social movements or building local, multi-racial coalitions, including independent electoral infrastructures, that live on well after the presidential campaign.
 
I think we can win folks from the militant minority of Bernie supporters, those who were inspired by his message but who do not see the Democratic Party as their home, to get involved in local formations where they exist, to lay the groundwork for running independent labour-community candidates, Greens, and open socialists for public office at the local level.
 
It is essential that a network be organised around the kind of domestic programme that Sanders has popularised, while adding a plank on foreign policy that opposes US interventions, occupations and military engagements in unjust wars.

A key challenge will be including community-of-color groups from the start. What form this might take isn't predictable, and can only emerge from among the engaged activists.

Unions like the NNU, APWU and the Labor for Bernie network together with grassroots groups like National Peoples Action could spearhead the development of such a network.

While there would be and should be interest in working with Sanders Democrats, such a formation should be be staunchly non-partisan [i.e. independent of Democrats and Republicans] and function democratically.

These are the open questions for discussion among hundreds of thousands of folks who are "feeling the Bern".

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