Earlier this week, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden in Biden’s campaign for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the presidential election last this year. This was a pretty remarkable development, not just because in 2016 Sanders only grudgingly supported Hillary Rodham Clinton for the same nomination after a long, acrimonious primary battle that continued all the way to the Democratic convention and the fight over the content of the Democratic platform. In endorsing Biden, Sanders beat other progressive Democrats like U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Sanders even endorsed Biden before former President Barack Obama, Biden’s former running mate, did.
It seems outlandish given his well-established antagonism toward the Democratic establishment, but Sanders has a close friendship with Biden, which was on display during the video conference announcing the endorsement. Biden has been a U.S. Senator from Delaware since 1973, served as chair of the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees, and of course was Vice President of the U.S. from 2009 to 2017. He is as much part of the Democratic ruling class as Clinton, and like her, helped pass the 1994 Crime Bill (responsible for the mass incarceration in U.S. prisons, especially of people of color) and voted for the Iraq War in 2002. Also like Clinton, he has been more friend than foe to Wall Street, billionaire donors, and other private interests. Yet when Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and Sanders supporter, penned an op-ed calling out Biden for his “big corruption problem,” Sanders condemned the piece and apologized to Biden, saying it was not his opinion “that Joe is corrupt in any way.”
It was a bizarre statement to make, especially since Biden is well-known for championing a 2005 bankruptcy bill, legislation that made it much more difficult for debtors to file for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy that would wipe out most of their debts. Thanks in large part to Biden, the bill made bankruptcy too expensive for most ordinary people, with the average out-of-pocket cost increasing from $600 to $2,500. Why did Biden side with lenders over borrowers? It is no coincidence that Biden’s state, Delaware, has a history of courting banks and credit card companies with low corporate taxes and uncapped annual interest and late fees. Hence, Biden has been responsible for building, as journalist Tim Murphy put it, “a financial system that’s great for Delaware banks and terrible for the rest of us.”
Given the discrepancy in self-described “socialist” Bernie Sanders backing Joe Biden, whose fingerprints are all over the embattled status quo that is failing so many, it is unsurprising that many Sanders supporters are indicating they will not support a Biden candidacy. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a long-time left-wing pressure group that surged with new members after Sanders’ 2016 insurgent campaign, has said it will not endorse Biden, as have many rank-and-file DSA chapters and members. It seems hardly remarkable that an organization explicitly dedicated to promoting anti-capitalist policies would decline to throw in behind in the capitalist, pro-business Biden.
Sanders caught the public mood in 2016, tapping into a raft of popular grievances over rising economic inequality, the existential crisis posed by climate change, government gridlock and venality, and a general mistrust of major U.S. institutions. But while the Republican Party hooked its star to Donald Trump and his brand of bellicose right-wing populism, the Democratic establishment has largely resisted any major shifts to the left. Even now in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis that has revealed how fragile and broken the U.S. and its principal systems and processes really are, discussion of student loan forgiveness and more accessible higher education include conditionalities and caveats, such as means-testing—and that is before the inevitable compromise and amendments that will come when/if such legislation is hashed out in Congress, with a far-right Republican Party that will surely oppose any attempts to increase social spending. If history is any guide, the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill will spark bipartisan calls for “deficit reduction,” i.e. austerity. The stimulus bill passed to address the financial crisis of 2007-08 led to the Obama administration creating the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which called for huge spending cuts (including slashing Medicare and Medicaid plus raising the Social Security age). Biden, incidentally, backed the commission, appointing GOP deficit hawk Alan Simpson to it, as well as his own chief of staff, Bruce Reed. Reed wrote the 1996 welfare reform law, which made it more difficult for people in poverty to get the assistance they need.
Given all this, the DSA membership and other anti-capitalists devoted to overturning the status quo have every right to be skeptical of Biden and the Democratic elite he represents. This begs the question, however, of how U.S. socialism should proceed: continuing to work with the Democratic Party to somehow oversee a gradual, lawful transition to socialism, or to adopt the traditional violent, insurrectionist approach ultimately leading to substituting the bourgeois state with a dictatorship of the proletariat. The chief difficulty with the latter strategy is its unpopularity, especially given the “bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices” of the “backward masses,” as Lenin once put it. For obvious reasons, people are reluctant to engage in violence against the state, especially in situations where state power is strong and still widely seen as legitimate. In the advanced capitalist West particularly, where the standard of living is relatively high even for the working poor, scraping by in a daily struggle is preferable to being imprisoned or killed. There is also the historical context: communist revolution in Western countries was eminently more likely in the direct aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the inspiring establishment of the first ever socialist state, much more so than now, given the “victory” of neoliberal capitalism over the Soviet Union. While the Bolshevik example roused a revolutionary wave across Europe from 1917 to 1923, these proletarian insurgencies failed, prompting the Stalinist regime to adopt “socialism in one country,” i.e. focusing on domestic development over exporting revolution. By the 1930s, most European communist parties had adopted a strategy of forming “popular fronts” with non-communist parties against fascism. Spanish communists took part the Popular Front government elected in 1936. In 1951, with the blessing of Stalin, the Communist Party of Great Britain published The British Road to Socialism, a program arguing for implementing socialism through popular democratic alliances rather than revolution. The French Communist Party was the leading left-wing party in French national elections from 1945 to 1960 and entered into coalition governments three times between 1944 and 1997. Outside Europe, the pattern was much the same. Chilean communists participated in the Popular Unity political confederation that helped elect Salvador Allende in the 1970 presidential election.
In all these cases, communist parties had two things in common. The first is that they embraced the reformist attitude of attaining socialism by piecemeal, peaceful reform. The second thing they share is that they all failed. Spain fell into a bloody civil war in 1936 when right-wing forces launched a coup, leading to the widespread massacre of communists and their allies, something the country still struggles to acknowledge. The Communist Party of Great Britain lost much of its influence after the 1956 protests in Poznan, Poland, and the anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary. The French Communist Party never recovered after denouncing the civil unrest of May 1968, which involved student occupations and general strikes, an instance where communists sided with the state against popular revolt. In Chile, the military overthrew the elected Allende government and brutally repressed all left-wing dissidents, with the approval and assistance of the Nixon administration in the U.S. In recent decades, many Western countries, notably the United Kingdom and the U.S., have seen surges in electoral socialism (manifested by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, respectively), but these surges failed to overcome opposition by centrists and private interests unwilling to loosen their grip on power. These defeats beg the question: is socialism via constitutional reformism even possible?
The answer is that it is not, for one simple reason: the power of the capitalist ruling class does not exist outside civil society, purely in the political and economic domains. Power in capitalist societies should not be represented as a central tower to be slowly besieged by an organized, agitated mass movement; it is instead a concentric castle with inner and outer wards, defenses within defenses. Even assuming there was a socialist majority in Congress with a sympathetic executive and Supreme Court, abolishing capitalism would be impossible by merely passing a law. Granted, it would be possible to increase the rate of corporate tax and taxes on wealth, to pass laws raising the minimum wage or breaking up monopolies (such as in the tech industry), and by extension weaken the fundamental mechanisms of capitalism. As history shows, however, the capitalist class does not take this sitting down; their responses are layoffs, cutting of benefits (particularly harsh in a system where health care is a “job perk,” not a human right), reduced wages, accelerated inflation, and so on. Like falling dominoes, economic destabilization leads to the fraying of social life, with spikes in homelessness, malnutrition, drug abuse, riots, etc. The capitalist relations of production are not a Jenga tower to be gently altered piece-by-piece; it must be dismantled in its entirety in one go, in a chaotic period of not just political upheaval but also turbulent socioeconomic crisis.
Lenin described these moments of crisis as “revolutionary situations,” and identified them according to their “three major symptoms,” which are as follows:
(1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes,” a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time,” but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.
Reformism actually stultifies the creation of revolutionary situations by affording the status quo the very legitimacy it must lose for a revolution to occur. The strategy of influencing the Democratic Party to adopt socialist policies, for example, is only possible with the belief that it is, as advertised, a vehicle of popular demand. “Mass politics” becomes canvassing for candidates and “getting out the vote” instead of “independent historical action,” the overthrow of one ruling class for another. Certainly in populist times such as the present, it is true that the “lower classes do not want to” live in the old way, but as long as existing dominant institutions are treated as valid, it remains true that the “upper class” continues to live in the old way. The COVID-19 pandemic is clearly adding to the “suffering and want” that already existed for most ordinary people around the world before the crisis began, but even as misery is multiplied, there can no revolutionary situation if the majority work within the system instead of outside it.
If socialism is to remain at all relevant in our politics, there must be a reckoning with this basic paradox of Western socialism: the common aversion to any strategy that is not reformist, and the futility of effectively carrying out any strategy that is. It is important to remember that it is not violence that most people disfavor (indeed, history shows us the opposite is true) so much as the hard work of building a new society, a messy class struggle across all parts of life. Without a willingness to engage in that struggle, to take that leap of faith that a better world will follow the destruction of the old one, that new world cannot be born. It is also important to remember that Lenin directed the seizure of power in April 1917 in the aptly named April Theses, and yet the revolution did not happen until Red October, and of course was followed by several years of gruesome civil war. It is no surprise that class war is more appealing in theory than in practice.
Simultaneously, however, we must confront the absence of any alternative, as well as the likelihood of the crisis deepening the longer the old discredited order persists past its time. There is also the risk of revolution of the right-wing variety; right-wing militias are ubiquitous in the U.S., and the military, despite its traditional respect for civilian government, is one of the most powerful, well-funded pillars of U.S. empire. The collapse of the old order will not wait on us, and were it to happen tomorrow, it is the forces of reaction that are poised to exploit its arrival. Whether that arrival is imminent remains to be seen; in the meantime, it is up to the radical left to resolve that age-old question that has followed Western socialists for centuries: reform or revolution?