Bernie Sanders’ Present Fight against Corporate Rule vs. the Bernie of 1989

Stansfield Smith, Chicago ALBA Solidarity

Recently, former leader of the self-destructed faux left group, the International Socialist Organization, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, was giddy hailing Bernie Sanders and his reform-the-Democratic-Party bandwagon. She alleges “Sanders linked the possibility of ending capitalist oligarchy to a “political revolution” that calls on the many to stand up to the few.” She claims Sanders calls for “a complete transformation of the country.” “He named capitalism as the culprit and democratic socialism as a solution.”  “What a breathtaking turn of events” she adds. 

Her silliness aside,Sanders again tellingly addressed the gross inequalities and abuses the working class endures in this society controlled by the corporate elite. Sanders advocates for Medicare for all, free higher education, $15 an hour minimum wage affordable housing, dramatically higher taxes on the rich and their corporations, for the need to combat climate change, the end to mass incarceration. In his speech, he advocates for a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights, a direct challenge to the neoliberal austerity measures pushed by the two corporate parties.  He outlines programs that most US people want – issues where the trade union leadership, if it were doing its job, would be leading the charge. Yet his speech was clearly one to rally people to vote Democratic and defeat the evil Republicans, a speech pushing people to once again to believe in this never-say-die pipedream of reforming the Democratic Party. 

Read in full – well worth reading – Sanders’ speech, not Taylor’s embellishment of it, is not an attack on capitalism but on “unfettered capitalism.” Sanders presents himself as a Democrat in the FDR liberal tradition (or myth).  He makes the social changes he advocates contingent on working inside the Democratic Party to achieve them. Trying to build “democratic socialism” outside of the Democratic Party is verboten – as he already made clear in his 2016 full endorsement of Ms. 1%, Hillary Clinton, for president. Sanders is due for a repeat performance in 2020.

Sanders also makes clear his loyalty to imperial foreign policy, as dictated by the DNC-RNC-national security state, in his demonization of Russia and China, his ambivalent record on constant US regime change operations and military invasions, and on Israeli apartheid. His speech says nothing about the Pentagon war budget, the US being the world’s largest weapons manufacturer and arms dealer, making up 36% of the world’s military exports.

The Overlooked FDR

Sanders and many of us need regular reminders of the real FDR. Did FDR conceive of himself as a democratic socialist? Not exactly: FDR argued to his corporate business critics who criticized his New Deal “I am the best friend the profit system ever had.” In his 1936 campaign speeches he proclaimed himself the “savior” of “the system of private profit and free enterprise.” [1]

FDR’s New Deal only reduced unemployment from 13 million to 9 million, meaning 70% of the unemployed stayed unemployed. And most Blacks were ineligible for the New Deal programs, being farm laborers, tenant farmers, domestic workers.

FDR referred to Haitians as “little more than primitive savages,” in 1933 called Mussolini “that admirable Italian gentleman,” said Nicaragua’s “Somoza is a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch,” as if the US owned not just him, but the country.[2]

When the Chicago police in 1937 shot ten strikers in the back during a peaceful rally, the Memorial Day massacre, FDR responded, “a plague on both your houses,” as if the victims shared equal blame for these police murders.

FDR fought legislation that would protect Black citizens from being lynched by criminal gangs of whites. Despite appeals and protests, he maintained the racial segregation of the US armed forces throughout World War II.

He imposed a trade embargo on Spain during the Spanish Civil War, blocking aid to the legitimate government while General Franco’s fascist forces fighting it received military aid from fascist Germany and Italy, thereby helping to ensure Franco’s victory.

FDR refused to lift immigration restrictions on European Jews fleeing the Nazis, including blocking the ship St. Louis, with a thousand Jewish refugees, from entering a US port in 1939. By being forced to return to the countries they fled, Roosevelt sent a message to Jews around the world.

During World War II his government refused to act on the Jewish request to bomb the rail tracks to Auschwitz, even though Allied bombers flew right over them.

In 1942 110,000 Japanese-Americans, three quarters of them born here, were thrown in prison camps, without any warrants, hearings or indictments being issued.  Even those with 1/16 Japanese blood were subject to this indefinite imprisonment. FDR’s abuse of Japanese-Americans was worse than anything Trump is doing at the border. Trump is not acting against actual US citizens as FDR did, nor is he jailing over 100,000, nor is Trump making them lose their wealth.

Nor has Trump thrown anti-war activists in prison as FDR did during World War II.

In 1934 a radical democratic socialist, Upton Sinclair, won the Democratic primary for California governor on the progressive platform End Poverty in California. Sinclair proposed that the state take over idle factories and farmland and turn them over to cooperatives. FDR, rather than back Sinclair, worked with the national Democratic leadership to undermine his campaign, and switched to support the Republican opponent, who eventually won.

Almost ten years later FDR had that generation’s “democratic socialist” Henry Wallace blocked from continuing as his vice-president.

Sanders in 1989 and Today

Sanders, in spite of his excellent exposes of class inequities, has degenerated over the years. Thirty years ago he wrote We Can’t Tail After the Democrats, which was a clear indictment of  the bankruptcy of his current strategy.

“We need a new, progressive political party in the U.S. because on almost every important issue the Democratic and Republican Parties, both controlled by Big Money, are indistinguishable.”

“We need a new, progressive political movement in this country because the Democrats and Republicans are not only incapable of solving any of the major problems facing this country, they are not even prepared to discuss them.”

“The boldness and clarity that we need to articulate can never be done through the compromised and corrupt Democratic Party – dominated by Big Money…. We must begin to have the courage to fight for power – not handouts. We are the majority of people and must act accordingly.”

What he said then remains true. But he has since remade himself into a salesman for the fairy tale that the Democrats can be remade into a tool for the 99%. Sanders does do important mass political educational work, showing how the corporate elite run the US for their own interests and threaten the future of life on the planet. (Similarly, candidate Tulsi Gabbard is an excellent vocal opponent of US interventions and regime change.) Yet Sanders’ whole approach is to try to convince the 1%, beg them to “do the right thing.” That strategy is not going to work any better than it did in ending the war on Vietnam.

There will arise “a new, progressive political party,” as Sanders wrote in 1989.  But it won’t be so easy as he made it seem. The corporate rulers do not intend to allow it and have many tools in their hands to derail it. They control the two parties, the government, the national security state, the legal system. They maintain a monopoly of the media and corporate wealth of the country. They are easily able to shut down any threat to their control, as the mass anti-Iraq war movement, the trade union protests in Madison, Wisconsin, and the Occupy Movement show. The rulers have been ingenious at neutralizing, co-opting and marginalizing any movements independent of their two parties.

The corporate elite still so controls the anger at the 1% that its present expressions remain locked inside the very two-party confines they have set up to ensure their rule over us. The Bernie Sanders campaign seeks to corral socialist sentiment inside the corporate Democrat Party just as the Trump campaign seeks to corral fascist sentiment inside the corporate Republican Party.  As social and economic conditions become more acute, this will change. A new progressive political party can arise, but will only out of a mass working class struggle, just as the CIO arose out of a mass working class struggle.


[1] Kenneth S. Davis,   FDR: The New Deal Years 1933-1937, pp. 372, 675

[2] Noam Chomsky,   Hegemony or Survival, pp. 65, 67

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