#Vanguard4Bernie: A Critique of Socialist Alternative


In one of the great ironies of this election season, Socialist Alternative has recently taken to attacking the Democratic Party, railing against the neoliberalism and elitism of the party establishment. In a recent article on their website they write, “it’s mass movements that change society, not the Democratic Party.” And yet not too long ago, SA positioned themselves firmly in the Sanders camp, claiming that his campaign presented the opportunity to build such a movement, ostensibly based in the left wing of the Democratic Party.

This should come as no surprise, seeing as SA has engaged in a continued pattern of opportunistic behavior recently. They now back Green presidential candidate Jill Stein, who they argue is vital in the struggle for a mass party. They have continued their use of Sanders’ rhetoric, advocating for a “political revolution” to bring about an end to corporate politics. This populism also incorporates the language of the Occupy movement, calling for the 99% to form their own independent party.

The problem with this sort of popular electoralism is that it bases itself in a purely political  perspective. Social change is viewed in terms of votes and legislation, and is disconnected from the material conditions of society. Talk of “polticial revolution” is emblematic of this phenomenon. Divorced from any notions of socioeconomic transformation, the idea of revolution just becomes another term for the changing of government. The same can be said for a “party of the 99%”, which manifests itself in calls for multi-party democracy and the implementation of social democratic reforms. It is not in reality a call for a revolutionary movement, but a call for the addition of another player to the game of bourgeois politics.

The adoption of such positions becomes especially problematic when they are taken by a group that claims to uphold revolutionary socialism. Socialist Alternative has eagerly embraced the ideology of capitalist democracy, all the while presenting themselves as defenders of the working class. Despite attempts to show a nuanced, critical take on the election, the party’s overwhelming support for the Sanders campaign has been quite disconcerting. Even after his loss in the primaries, SA continued their cheerleading for the social democrat from Vermont. Another essay proclaims that “Socialist Alternative is calling on Bernie to continue running through November as an independent if he is blocked in the rigged primary process. Win or lose in the general election, an independent Sanders campaign could win millions of votes and lay the foundations for a new party of the 99%”.

Socialist Alternative would most likely attempt to justify this parliamentarianism by arguing that their actions have been strategic attempts to engage the working class, opening up opportunities for intensified class struggle. This argument relies on the presumption that the electoral arena is a viable agent of radical change. Yes, SA is not openly reformist, but in their tactical decisions lies the implication that participation in bourgeois politics allows revolutionaries to interact with workers in a meaningful way. The contradiction of such a theory is that in choosing to take part in the electoral process, “socialists” only help facilitate the function of liberal democracy as an ideological mechanism.

Structural change must be sought through non-structural, or rather, non-institutional, methods, and in this historical moment it is more clear than ever that mainstream politics serve to obscure and redirect any intensified spurts of class antagonism. At this present time, with capitalism completely devoid of any progressive tendencies, proletarian liberation lies far beyond the electoral realm. And yet we continue to be confronted with  the efforts of groups like SA to entrech socialism in the politics of capital, diving head-first into the world of the “establishment” they claim to combat. It thus becomes necessary to reject such strategies and the groups that pursue them in order to advance Marxist theory and praxis. The abolition of capitalist social relations can only come through the dismantlement of the repressive institutions and systems that keep them in place, not embracing them.

In view of SA’s Trotskyist roots, their course of action is not entirely unexpected. As a theoretical principle, vanguardism in the Leninist/Trotskyist sense is deeply flawed. It divorces any revolutionary potential from the working class itself, proposing that the workers must be drawn into the class struggle through the deliberate and organized political action of a few. To vanguardists, workers are not individuals whose everyday interactions with captialism and resulting experiences lead them to reject such systems. To the vanguardist, working class people are but empty cells waiting to filled with the righteous anger of class consciousness. Thus vanguardism places emphasis not on the relation between the proletariat and captialists, but the relation between the proletariat and revolutionaries. The existing contradictions of capitalism and the social conflict that they drive are ignored in order to justify the imposition of external organization. By viewing the workers as objects instead of subjects, the vanguard alienates itself from the class which they seek empower, becoming a diseperate entity the exists outside of everyone else’s experienced reality. This disconnect is what can lead to a belief that electoralism is a form of subversion, because it raises the platform from which “revolutionaries” can speak, and thus spread their message.

Socialist Alternative has showed no signs of departing from their currently chosen path, and so one can safely say that they will doom themselves to obsolescence. Their incessant struggle to bring socialism to the workers through liberals like Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein reflects a lack of understanding of the nature of capitalist politics, and serves to put on display the theoretical ineptitude of SA as socialist organization. It remains to be seen if they will succeed in their social democratic agenda, but as of now, even that seems quite improbable.

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