Moments into the first presidential debate, Trump accused Biden and the Democrats of being socialists. Biden rejected this accusation, explaining that he believed in privatized health insurance and proclaiming, “Right now, I am the Democratic Party” (1). This exchange, which we might be tempted to forget amid the flood of agitational information that bombards us by the minute, is an index of both the socialist struggle in the US and abroad.
Loath to admit it though we might be, Trump’s accusation, which is of course the entire far-right’s accusation, contains a grain of truth: there have indeed been many self-proclaimed socialists across the US who have also called themselves Democrats, thanks largely to the DSA’s strategy of the “dirty break” from the Democratic Party. However, by now these same socialists and their supporters are well aware that the Democrats hate socialism more than they hate the alleged fascism of the Republicans. Biden’s proclamation that he is the Democratic Party is not only a defense against Trump’s accusation, it is also his announcement to the “socialist Democrats” that their “dirty break” strategy has failed. Despite four years of liberal agit-prop by the mainstream media about how Trump is a fascist and a wannabe-dictator, the truth revealed here by Biden is that both the establishment Democrats and the Republicans are firmly united in their fight against socialism.
Nearly all socialists in the US would agree that both the Democrats and the Republicans are capitalist parties backed by large corporations, but there is perhaps less agreement about the fact that both parties are united in their militant fight against socialism. To understand the coalition between the Democrats and the Republicans, we need not examine politics within the US; in fact, we gain a much clearer picture of this coalition when looking at US foreign policy. The US is not now, nor has it ever been, the forefront of the international socialist struggle. For the last twenty years, the forefront of the international socialist struggle has been the Pink Tide in Latin America. Key indicators of the Pink Tide’s centrality in the international socialist struggle are the number of coups organized against it by the eminently capitalist Democratic-Republican coalition as well as the extensive bipartisan disinformation campaign waged against Pink Tide governments by the legacy media in the US (both the liberal media and Fox News) (2, 3).
How can we, as socialists, call ourselves socialists if we support a party that fights socialists abroad? And that backs the far-right abroad? In the US, liberals and socialists alike have been decrying the fascism of Trump and the Republicans for the last four years, but they have been altogether silent on the fascism of the Democrats, at best out of ignorance and naïveté, at worst out of cynicism and lesser-evilism. So far throughout the 21st century (not to mention the latter half of the 20th), the Democrats have joined hands with the Republicans in order to back fascists abroad. In the 20th century, the Democratic-Republican coalition organized genocide against millions of socialists, from Indonesia to Latin America (4). In the 21st century, dozens have been killed by Democratic-Republican-backed far-right protesters in Latin America, and dozens more have been injured (5), not to mention the tens of thousands that have died due to the consequences of sanctions imposed by the Democratic-Republican coalition and the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in the Middle East by airstrikes and drone-strikes organized by the Democratic-Republican coalition (6).
Aimé Césaire writes that before Europeans were the victims of Nazism, “they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples” (7, p. 36). Césaire’s point is that citizens in the imperial core are frightened by what they call “fascism,” despite the fact that the tactics characterizing “fascism” had previously been practiced upon the colonized by the empire without any sizable complaint from the citizens of the imperial core. It is only when the tactics of colonialism are turned against citizens inside the imperial core itself that the citizens cry “fascism.” In reality, colonialism is merely fascism by another name, and vice versa, fascism is merely colonialism by another name.
While the citizens of the imperial core live relatively well-off lives, colonized peoples abroad experience the fascist terror of the bipartisan US military-industrial complex. A political party that actively finances and supports fascists is itself a fascist party, if we are to call a spade a spade; the Democratic Party, therefore, is just as much of a fascist party as the Republican Party. To discuss which is “less fascist” or “more fascist” is absurd, since supporting fascism is in any case still fascism. Trump and the Republicans opened up the possibility of using the tactics of colonialism against US citizens inside the imperial core, and liberals and socialists were quick to denounce him as a fascist, but many of these same liberals and socialists then proceeded to vote for the imperialist Joe Biden and thereby support the imperialist Democratic Party, which has always already been using fascist tactics against colonized peoples, presumably because it would be the “lesser of two evils” to limit the use of fascist terror to colonized peoples alone.
We owe it to our brother and sisters in the international socialist struggle to make a clean break from the imperialist Democratic Party, which is as much the party of the colonizers as the Republican Party. Furthermore, any serious anti-fascist must likewise make a clean break from the imperialist Democratic Party, since colonialism is merely fascism by another name. By labelling socialists candidates “Democrats” on the ballot, we are merely legitimizing the genocidal Democratic Party. If one runs socialists as Democrats, one might as well run them as Republicans, for it amounts to the same thing, and in either case there is the same chance of building a principled and independent socialist movement by doing so, namely zero. Moreover, we have a lot to learn, in terms of both theory and practice, from our brothers and sisters in Latin America, since our lot as the masses is in a few essential respects the same; but whereas the socialist struggle in the US is relatively small and has suffered major defeats, the socialist struggle in Latin America is a mass movement that has won major victories.
Witnessing the failure of the US government to protect its people from the pandemic and the simultaneous new Great Depression, numerous online commenters have described the US as a “failed state” and as “a third-world country with a Gucci belt.” Journalist Chris Hedges has been describing the US as a failed state for a number of years, and recent events have only given his words on the topic more weight (8). Like the people of Latin America, the people of the US have been suffering from the yoke of neoliberalism: a combination of deindustrialization, stagnant wages, inflation, the gutting of social welfare programs, privatization of basic goods and services, and the unfettered power of transnational corporations. America is not exceptional: US citizens have been treated by the Democratic-Republican coalition in the same way that the Democratic-Republican coalition has treated Latin America for decades in several key respects.
Of course, there are important differences between workers in the imperial core and workers outside it. The burden endured by Latin American peoples has been much worse, and as a result their resistance has been much greater. Rojas reports that “Around 2000, defensive struggles against neoliberalism in the region turned into an offensive wave that once again shook elite rule,” crystallizing in “the Pink Tide governments [which] came to power in Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador” through fair-and-square elections (9). In Venezuela and Bolivia, where the Pink Tide is still going strong despite US sanctions and US-backed coups, the initial victories won by the respective socialist movements were made possible by pursuing a clean-break strategy. Rojas writes that “Hugo Chávez rode the tide of discontent and routed the traditional parties to win the Venezuelan presidency in 1998,” while in Bolivia the traditional party system centering around the MNR was superseded by a “relatively new left party with Evo Morales at its head, the MAS,” composed of workers’ movements which “culminated in virtual insurrections in 2003 and 2005, which toppled successive governments and voted Morales into the presidency” (10). The respective parties of Chávez (the Fifth Republic Movement, which later became the United Socialist Party of Venezuela or the PSUV) and Morales (the Movement for Socialism or MAS) both made clean breaks from the traditional capitalist ruling parties of their nations in order to mobilize the working masses who were dissatisfied with those traditional ruling parties.
It was a clean-break strategy that helped millions of Venezuelans and Bolivians achieve what millions of US-Americans are still desperately attempting to achieve: free universal healthcare. Chávez and Morales are “bigger than Bernie” (to appropriate a phrase from Day and Uetricht). They used a strategy that worked and continues to work, in our very own lifetimes, to win free and fair elections against the lackeys of neoliberalism, in open defiance of the US empire. The working masses across the world share more in common with each other than they do with the capitalists of their own country. In the US, too, the working masses are fed up with the traditional ruling parties of the capitalists. In the US, too, the working masses would like to fight back against neoliberalism. In the US, too, the working masses demand free universal healthcare. In the US, too, the working masses deserve an independent socialist party that serves their interests.
It is true that there are important differences between Latin America and the US; however, a mass socialist movement with an independent socialist party is not without precedent in US history. Eugene Debs, the hero of Bernie Sanders, was an important leader of the US labor movement in the early 20th century (11, 12), In the early 20th century, the US had a flourishing Socialist Party which ran candidates as members of the Socialist Party on the ballot and held many positions in local governments across the country (13). Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party made a clean break from the Democrats and the Republicans. Eugene Debs ran for President of the US five times, each time appearing on the ballot as the candidate of the Socialist Party; he made his most successful run in 1912, when he won 6% of the popular vote, and his second most successful run was during his last run in 1920, when he won 3.4% of the popular vote while he was still in prison for his anti-war activism in opposition to WWI (14).
Bernie Sanders may have done much to popularize the idea of socialism, but at the end of the day his allegiance is with the capitalist Democratic Party, as is evident by his endorsement of Joe Biden. Moreover, Sanders has consistently supported the US military-industrial complex and has received significant campaign donations from the “defense” industry; Sanders has also refused to support the international socialist movement, distancing himself from it by misleading describing Chávez as “a dead communist dictator” (15). Sanders has always been a capitalist and an imperialist candidate, not a socialist one; he has fallen far short of his hero Eugene Debs. Debs is forever “bigger than Bernie.” Therefore, it is not Sanders’ “dirty break” strategy that we should emulate, but Debs’ “clean break” strategy. Sanders can only mislead us into supporting the US empire. Debs paid for his struggle against US imperialism with a prison sentence. Debs never became President, but his presidential campaigns, along with his other organizing work, did help build the workers’ movement that pressured FDR into implementing the New Deal during the Great Depression (16). Debs is the real US-American champion of socialism that deserves the full extent of our hero-worship.
Debs, Chávez, and Morales, in making a clean break from capitalist ruling parties and running under the ticket of an independent workers’ party, were following the advice of seminal organizers and theorists Marx and Engels, whether they were aware of the fact or not. In an 1850 address to The Communist League in London, Marx and Engels said, “Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention” (17). In the conclusion of this same address, Marx and Engels dubbed this clean break strategy “the permanent revolution.” As numerous others have noted, “the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements” (18, 19, 20). A socialist movement cannot be independent if it is dependent on the inherently undemocratic institution of the Democratic Party for the right to run under the ticket of the Democratic Party. The surest way to guarantee that the DSA gets absorbed into the Democratic Party apparatus is to collaborate with the Democrats and to run DSA members under the ticket of the Democratic Party.
We are all tired of losing on the Left, but we should avoid developing a cult of personality around an imperialist like Bernie Sanders, who is not only far from being a principled socialist, but also far from being victorious. Let us follow the examples of Chávez and Morales, who proved to the world that it is possible to elect principled socialists into the highest office of a nation and that it is possible by this means to fight back against neoliberalism and to win basic human rights such as free universal healthcare. Let us follow the example of Eugene Debs, who helped build a workers’ movement strong enough to pressure FDR into implementing the reforms of the New Deal. Let us join Marx and Engels in adopting “the permanent revolution” as our battle-cry. Let us cease to be Bernie Bros and let us begin to be Chavistas. Let us take a serious first step towards joining the international socialist struggle by making a clean break from the Democratic Party.