Volume 50, Issue 2: Spring 2016

The Bernie Sanders Campaign and Left Politics in Canada

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Does the Bernie Sanders campaign matter here? Of course it does. Who among us has failed to “feel the Bern”? Thanks to Bernie, and contrary to what anybody thought possible only a few months ago, Americans are talking class politics — for the first time since the 1930s! It’s the working class versus the billionaire class. Granted, Bernie is not talking about expropriating the expropriators or dismantling the American Empire, but he is talking about reforming capitalism the way FDR talked about it and the way Tommy Douglas talked about it. And his message is resonating with American workers, not in spite of his identifying himself as a socialist, but at least partly because of it.

The articles Canadian Dimension has collected for this issue offer different perspectives on what the Canadian Left can take away from the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Donald Cuccioletta highlights the contrast between Sanders’ embrace of socialism and the NDP’s long retreat from any measures that could be said to challenge the status quo. He writes that “the Sanders campaign, like the campaign of Jermy Corbyn in Britain, offers inspiration and succour to those in Canada seeking to breathe life back into the socialist (or at least more robust social-democratic) roots of the NDP. Why Thomas Mulcair? They can ask. Why not Socialism?”

Along the same lines, Christo Aivalis states “What is working so well for Sanders underscores the deficiencies of the contemporary NDP.” As a case in point, Aivalis compares how Sanders “has railed against the millionaire and billionaire classes” while the NDP, trying to show itself as the party for all classes, prates that “higher taxes on the rich are unjust and confiscatory.”

Herman Rosenfeld fundamentally disagrees with this perspective. While “celebrating the bold and audacious left-populist campaign that Sanders has run,” he rejects the idea that the NDP can ever be the space for the Left to emulate a Bernie-style politics in Canada. In a Canadian context, the demands generated by such a campaign would be far more radical than anything put forward by Sanders. Even modest versions of such a program would require a total transformation of the NDP … and that ship sailed several decades ago. For an electoral project to effectively carry such radical policies, Rosenfeld concludes, it would have to be preceded by painstaking efforts to build grass-roots support.

William Kaufman lashes out against the far Left for sneering at the Sanders’ campaign while pushing for a “true socialist” party with a program that has no purchase on people as they really are: “massively depoliticized and demoralized casualties of the culture industry and neoliberal piracy — not the doughty battle-ready proletariat of far-left dreams.” It’s what we all want but it’s a “practical nullity right now and will remain so for some time to come — and hence amounts to self-indulgent posturing in the face of calamities looming on a near horizon.”

Ouch. That hurts, but some of us on the radical left, stranded so long in the political wilderness, are starting to admit that it sounds right. Nivedita Majumdar in Jacobin frames it well: “Sanders’s anti-corporate, pro-working-class electoral campaign has against all odds electrified millions. Whether the Left rejects or chooses to take advantage of this opening may well define its trajectory for a long time to come.”

The question for us remains, how do we apply this lesson in Canada and Québec? We invite your comments at canadiandimension.com.

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