[Marxism] Sanders: 'Make Democrats a party of the working class, not liberal elite'

Joaquin Bustelo jbustelo at gmail.com
Thu Apr 6 20:20:25 MDT 2017

On 4/5/2017 3:33 PM, Fred Murphy via Marxism wrote

> Thought experiment: Let's say Sanders and Warren succeed beyond their
> wildest dreams and either rout the neoliberal wing of the DP altogether or
> break with the DP and successfully organize a new formation - in either
> case, would it then be a working-class party? What else would have to
> happen to make it so? While I see a lot of broadly reformist,
> quasi-social-democratic ("progressive") programmatic points on the Our
> Revolution website, I see nothing to indicate any aspiration to be a
> working-class or social-democratic party.  And Google searches on "trade
> unions" and "labor movement" on that site come up effectively empty.

* * *

I think this response to me is based on our experience in the U.S. 
Socialist Workers Party (that both Fred and I belonged to). The SWP had 
a schema that a working class party is either:

a) Programmatically proletarian, in other words, the SWP,
b) Based on the unions, or
c) One of the traditional currents in the workers movement, like 
Stalinism and Social Democracy.

Yet in the Communist Manifesto and other writings, Marx and Engels very 
clearly reference one party as the first worker's party, the English 
Chartists of the end of the 1830s and 1840s, even though it is on 
another planet from the criteria. And they were intimately familiar with 
it, especially Engels.

I'm going to go over this in a little bit of detail because I think many 
people haven't thought through that a workers party is not mainly an 
organization but a social phenomenon arising from a class movement.

The first thing to understand is that the Chartists weren't a 
centralized, structured political organization.

Then there's the program, which was strictly limited to electoralist 
bourgeois-democratic reforms, like universal male suffrage and 
parliamentary districts of equal population.

And the Chartist supporters included not just clubs organized by 
working-class activists but quite prominently also a wing of the middle 
class (bourgeois) radicals, including several members of parliament.

In what sense were the Chartists a "party" then?

First political parties were just being invented back then, and other 
meanings of "party" were all meshed together with it. In this context, 
it means, first and foremost, a side to a dispute (like a "party" in a 
lawsuit) and in this sense a self-and-other recognized "interest group," 
so to speak, not necessarily organization.

In this sense, Occupy was the embryo of a worker's party, a movement 
conscious of what it represented ("the 99%") fighting a recognized enemy 
("the 1%") that controlled the economy, the government and the media. 
And, yes, because of its origins with a bunch of weirdo anarchists and 
then everyone copying Wall Street, it was a very strange movement.

Marx and Engels called the chartists a worker's party for many reasons, 
including that the London Workingmen's Association played a key role in 
starting it, the composition of the couple of national assemblies they 
held, reflecting the composition of their base, the tactics they used or 
were associated with even if not officially "Chartist" actions 
(including mass petitions, rallies, marches and strikes), and that the 
central leaders and the newspaper they started spoke as representatives 
of the workers in defense of the interests of the working people.

Marx and Engels were very much for getting involved in this kind of thing.

In criticizing the attitude of the German Marxists in the United States 
in the 1880s in relation to the labor-sponsored Henry George candidacy 
for NY City mayor, Engels wrote:

    Our theory is not a dogma but the exposition of a process of
    evolution, and that process involves successive phases. To expect
    that the Americans will start with the full consciousness of the
    theory worked out in older industrial countries is to expect the
    impossible. What the Germans ought to do is to act up to their own
    theory --if they understand it, as we did in 1845 and 1848--to go in
    for any real general working-class movement, accept its faktische
    starting points as such and work it gradually up to the theoretical
    level by pointing out how every mistake made, every reverse
    suffered, was a necessary consequence of mistaken theoretical views
    in the original programme; they ought, in the words of The Communist
    Manifesto, to represent the movement of the future in the movement
    of the present. But above all give the movement time to consolidate,
    do not make the inevitable confusion of the first start worse
    confounded by forcing down people's throats things which at present
    they cannot properly understand, but which they soon will learn.

I think that is fully applicable to the current U.S. situation even if 
the next sentence in what Engels wrote is not: "A million or two of 
workingmen's votes next November for a bona fide workingmen's party is 
worth infinitely more at present than a hundred thousand votes for a 
doctrinally perfect platform." [And please note: this has nothing to do 
with small propaganda campaigns: there were 11 million vote for 
president in the following election, so Engels is talking about a party 
with a mass following].

In that piece by Engels and many other writings, Marx and Engels stress 
that their theory is one of development, a description of social forces 
and classes in motion, with the Marxists looking to the working class 
beginning to cohere as a distinct group with common problems and 
interests that bind it together. And then though a series of issues and 
struggles, realizing that what it needs to do is take over the government.

So, from the point of view of class evolution, where are we in the 
United States?

We are emerging (I hope!) from well over half a century where the 
working class as a class was simply not a thing.

The victory of the United States over its enemies AND its allies in WWII 
led to an unprecedented 25-year period of rapidly rising living 
standards and job stability. Even after the general, average wage levels 
started to decline, many working people continued to have an improving 

This because of age-stratified wage structures. The apprentice who 
started at the equivalent of $15 an hour in the early 70s was earning 
say $30 by the early 90s. Of course, the guy who held the higher-paying 
position in the 70s made $40 an hour, and by the 90s the apprentice wage 
had been cut to $12. But the *individual* was better off even as wages 

That began to change for some in the 80s in the "rust belt" and in 
mining, but I believe it was when Bush the lesser took over in 2001 that 
it started to become generalized, and then the 2008 depression had a 
catastrophic impact, especially on people in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

Occupy marked the crystallization of consciousness in an over-saturated 
solution of class resentment on a mass scale that had built up in the 
previous decade. Young people especially were mad as hell that after 
doing everything they were supposed to do, they were tens of thousands 
of dollars in debt and has jobs flipping hamburgers or making coffee at 

Occupy's "We are the 99%" was the first slogan expressing class 
consciousness that caught on with masses of working people in my entire 

Just think: by then every kind of "identity politics" had been discussed 
and disected EXCEPT for working class identity politics. Why? Because 
there was no working class identity. Now it started to emerge.

The phenomenon was not just that workers did not recognize that they had 
common interests as workers. Many workers did not even consider 
themselves part of the "working class." They though that term in no way 
defined or described them or the circumstances of their lives.

And if you think of the 1950s and 1960s contrasted with the 1930s, it 
makes sense that an avalanche of borugeois propaganda was able to 
convince them that they were now "middle class." (One delicious irony in 
all this is that "rebuild the middle class" has now become a working 
class demand.)

The crystallization of class consciousness among many thanks to Occupy 
had a tremendous political impact. Remember in the summer of 2011, right 
before, all the talk was about deficits and cutbacks and Paul Ryan's 
brilliance. After Occupy, it changed to growing economic inequality and 
how to remedy it.

Various groups on the left talked about how Occupy "changed the 
conversation" but I don't recall any that really analyzed the magnitude 
of the social force needed to effect such a change in American politics. 
That force was simply the working class beginning to cohere as a "class 
for itself," i.e., conscious that it is a thing.

I think the Sanders campaign was a second stage in the awakening working 
class consciousness, and in some ways it was more explicitly political. 
You might argue it was fool's gold, but at least the fools were looking 
for gold.

Fred remarks that he went on the "Our Revolution" web site and he saw no 
clear class message. But I think the whole Sanders campaign was very 
strongly class-identified, even though what he would say were 
summarizing his message were things like that the economy should work 
for "everyone," not just the rich.

That was what was so striking to me about last week's Boston rally: His 
NOT saying something like that the Democrats have to become the party of 
everyone not just of the liberal elite but INSTEAD he said that the 
Democrats had to STOP being a party of the liberal elite and become a 
party of the working class.

*  *  *

I believe that the Sanders movement represents class motion among 
working people, especially millennials, in the direction of intervening 
in politics collectively as working people, i.e. towards becoming "a 
class for itself." I think that is quite simply undeniable.

Marx explains the process in The Poverty of Philosophy:

    Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of
    the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for
    this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus
    already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the
    struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass
    becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The
    interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of
    class against class is a political struggle.

I can't think of any reason why, if motion towards class political 
consciousness can supposedly be advanced by supporting a bourgeois 
imperialist labor party based on unions run by scoundrels with the likes 
of Tony Blair as ring leader, it can't be advanced by relating to 
something like the Sanders phenomenon, a movement born in the framework 
of a bourgeois imperialist party which is being powered by rank and file 
working people from below rather than some bureaucracy and that is 
organizing around immediate economic and social demands that have arisen 
in the economic and social struggles of working class and oppressed people.

I know it is unprecedented and there's nothing analogous in the last 
century and a half and so on. But theory is gray and life is green.

I don't think previous experiences of wings within bourgeois parties 
help that much. The consciousness working people here are emerging from 
is unique, I think, and my point is that this is all about consciousness.

At any rate, I don't think you can argue that nothing is happening. I 
think very, very clearly it is.

You can argue that Sanders is simply leading these people back into the 
Democratic Party, derailing the movement, undermining their 
consciousness or whatever you believe.

But I think turning a blind eye to this motion is a mistake.


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