Why Workers Need a Political Party

The successes and limitations of Bernie Sanders’s campaigns showed why we need a working-class party to extend and deepen what the campaign achieved.


Editor’s note: This article was completed just before the killing of George Floyd, and we delayed publishing it to focus our attention on the ongoing protests that arose in response. In the future, we hope take up the question of how a mass working-class party could advance the fights against police brutality and for racial justice in particular. While this article features several positive examples from Bernie Sanders’s campaign, we agree with many on the Left that his response to the uprisings has been inadequate.

In recent weeks, socialists have published a flurry of articles attempting to draw lessons from Bernie Sanders’s recent presidential campaign. Some writers have argued that the campaign’s defeat showed that supporting candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line is a dead end; others have argued that the campaign demonstrated the opposite. Still others have argued for an intermediate position, saying that the campaign showed the need for groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to refine its strategy for forming a party independent of the Democrats.

We are grateful for the contributions, and we wanted to address what we think is a fundamental question underlying this debate: Why should socialists care about parties at all? Answering this question is necessary to advance the conversation around Sanders’s 2020 campaign and where socialists should go from here.

We begin by arguing that Sanders’s two presidential campaigns were giant steps forward for the Left because they encouraged the organization and confidence of the working class to fight for itself. Sanders’s 2020 campaign could do this because it was able to temporarily and unevenly fulfill some key functions that mass workers’ parties have in other times and places.

These successes — and limitations — suggest a direction for socialist strategy moving forward: We must work to build a mass working-class party. We need it in order to deepen and extend the process of working-class organization recently begun by the Sanders campaign and to help the working class gain the confidence, power, and practical cohesion to ultimately overthrow capitalism. In the second section of this essay, we discuss why a party is necessary and briefly touch on its essential characteristics.

We conclude by offering initial suggestions for how socialists can begin the years-long process of building such a party. Rather than work to “realign” a party where the capitalists already hold all the power, socialists should focus on near-term tasks that will help lay the groundwork for a future mass party. It is no coincidence that these tasks are also those that will help build workers’ organization, class consciousness, and ability to conduct class struggle in general.

Bernie’s Campaigns: a Party in Miniature

In their recent article, Charlie Post and Ashley Smith argue the 2020 Sanders campaign shows we should not support Democratic candidates, even with the hope of forcing a “dirty break.” We agree that the movement around Bernie Sanders has all sorts of limitations, and that the dirty break strategy poses a number of challenges and contradictions. But that doesn’t mean socialists should always avoid the Democratic Party ballot line or that Bernie’s campaign was wasted effort. Post and Smith suggest that Sanders’s campaign threatens to bring “the Left into the fold of a capitalist party, diverting activists from organizing resistance and into electoral campaigns for candidates they would otherwise oppose.” To the extent that this co-option is real, it is not the whole story.

We believe that the positive impact of Sanders’s two campaigns is due to their emulating key functions that mass working-class parties have served historically. Sanders’s 2020 run recruited large numbers of workers into a campaign that espoused open struggle with capitalists. Funded entirely by workers, the campaign built impressive national media and organizing operations and advanced a comprehensive national program for left-wing reforms. These are some of the important tasks of workers’ parties and precisely the type of activities needed to build a new mass working-class movement.

Because of the absence of large, democratic, working-class institutions, these campaign creations were inherently temporary. But they give us a glimpse, here and now, of what a future working-class party could do permanently.

Let’s begin with some concrete examples of how Sanders’s campaigns since 2015 have encouraged the development of working-class consciousness and organizing.

Lasting Impacts of the Campaigns

Even skeptics like Post and Smith acknowledge Bernie’s role in inspiring the small but potent wave of socialist electoral efforts since 2016. Indeed, to some degree, we can attribute the historically small but still-significant rise in class struggle in the United States from 2015–2020 to the fact that Sanders essentially ran a permanent campaign during those years.

Marianela D’Aprile shows how Sanders’s 2020 campaign boosted DSA, and it’s also clear that tens of thousands would not have turned to a democratic socialist organization in 2017 if Sanders’s 2016 campaign hadn’t won over millions to his policies and the socialist label. But the campaigns have had an even greater effect beyond DSA and socialist electoral efforts.

The other phenomenon in recent years with a comparable social impact to Sanders’s campaigns is the teachers’ strike wave that started in 2018. Millions of workers have been touched by these strikes, and hundreds of thousands participated directly. While the strikes didn’t put forward a comprehensive program and were limited to a handful of states and cities, they often did put forward class-struggle politics and solidaristic demands, explicitly attacking billionaires and corporate-owned politicians of both parties while proving that only organized workers have the power to fight back against privatization, austerity, and racial injustice.

Drawing on dozens of interviews with participants in the first major teacher strikes in 2018, Eric Blanc showed in Red State Revolt that Bernie’s radical campaign not only “captured the imagination” of hundreds of thousands of voters in these states but inspired leading strike organizers. While the longstanding crisis of austerity in education is what directly prompted the strikes, lead organizers revealed that Sanders’s 2016 campaign helped cohere and train networks of progressive activists who were key in building this movement. Countless workers in these states learned from the campaign that, instead of relying on corporate Democratic Party politicians as many union leaders counseled, they could only rely on themselves and on the power of an organized and united working class. As West Virginia strike leader Nicole McCormick put it, “Bernie put forward class politics in a way that was really approachable to a lot of people I work with.”

The direct testimony of key leaders makes it hard to believe that, as Post and Smith argue, Sanders’s first presidential run “did little to prepare [teachers] to initiate, build, and lead these struggles.” It’s true that some strike leaders were schooled in the experiences of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and by Labor Notes. But this doesn’t mean that Sanders’s 2016 campaign didn’t contribute as well, in the first place by inspiring young radicals to find each other. For instance, two of West Virginia’s future strike leaders met each other when they joined DSA after being Sanders activists, and there they formed a reading group to study the lessons of the 2012 Chicago strike. Again, we see a way in which the transient campaign took on one function a working-class party would take on permanently: serving as a place for radical organizers to meet one another and strategize together.

The 2016 campaign’s impact went beyond workplace organizing. Sunrise Movement, the potent youth-led climate organization, also drew energy from Sanders’s 2016 campaign. Leaders Sara Blazevic and Varshini Prakash told The New Republic that Sunrise was founded in late 2015 in an attempt “to capture some of the dynamism of the Sanders campaign” — no doubt inspired by the army of young people supporting Sanders and his left-wing, anti-corporate climate platform — “and direct it toward environmental problems.”

While it is still too early to know if Sanders’s second presidential campaign has had similar impacts, there are good signs. For starters, many Students for Bernie groups, far from being co-opted into supporting corporate Democrats, joined with DSA in publicly announcing that their campus groups would not endorse Biden after Bernie dropped out. Students for Bernie activists from Connecticut to Colorado have instead been fighting to protect health, safety, housing, and compensation for students and campus workers during the pandemic.

As with West Virginia teachers in 2018, workers who organized for Sanders in 2020 were well positioned once the COVID crisis hit their workplaces. While their union was reluctant to rock the boat, rank-and-file teachers in New York City used the networks and leadership built through their Educators for Bernie project to help organize and spread a wildcat sickout to demand schools be shut down. The union and the school district felt the heat and agreed to close schools earlier than they otherwise would have — saving countless lives in what became a major epicenter for the virus.

Post and Smith describe the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC) project as a “key initiative that can help build working-class resistance in the face of the pandemic.” What they don’t mention is that EWOC was initiated by leading Sanders campaign activists and has reached success in part thanks to networks of DSA members who participated in DSA’s massive independent campaign for Sanders. Steven Greenhouse describes how EWOC organizers worked to find “a way to channel [the Sanders campaign’s] insurgent energy into new battles for social justice.” A grocery worker-organizer who is being supported by EWOC told Greenhouse that the Sanders campaign inspired her to organize in her workplace: “The realization that our collective power can challenge corporate greed and we can win helped make the possibility of organizing in my own workplace a reality.”

It is clear from these examples and others that Sanders’s campaign has fostered class struggle beyond the ballot box. We believe that Sanders’s campaigns had a broader effect on working-class organizing because to a limited but important extent, they carried out some of the key functions that workers’ parties have historically. Below we assess more of the important features of the 2020 campaign in particular. We hope this will help concretely illustrate a party’s enormous strategic value for the many U.S. activists who have never had direct experience with a workers’ party.

Comprehensive National Program and Movement

More than any other phenomena in recent history, the 2020 Sanders campaign brought together a mass multiracial, working-class coalition around a comprehensive national program of left-wing reforms.

Nonprofits focus on one or a few issues, and unions focus mostly on the demands of their members (and at best related demands of allied constituencies). In contrast, Sanders’s comprehensive platform included demands that run the gamut of issues facing working-class people. His platform was also national in scope, instead of rooted in a geographically limited constituency.

What was incredible about Sanders’s campaign is not just that it championed radical policies like Medicare for All, social housing, a Green New Deal, ending cash bail, and ending student debt — it’s also that Sanders championed all of them and did so everywhere the campaign went. Just as important, the various planks were united in telling an overarching story of the working class against the capitalists.

The campaign brought together a wide range of progressive forces, including progressive unions, DSA, Sunrise Movement, Black Lives Matter, and environmental justice activists. Nonprofits, unions, celebrities, and politicians that backed Sanders did so at the risk of alienating themselves from the Democratic Party establishment, associated donors, and most of the U.S. labor bureaucracy. This confidence in a politics independent of the corporate establishment is exactly what will be required at a much higher level if we are to build a mass working-class movement — one that can wage massive struggles against the corporations and billionaires who fund the media, the Democratic and Republican parties, and most nonprofits.

Sanders raised over $200 hundred million from nearly two million donors for his 2020 campaign. While he was the favorite among teachers, nurses, and Teamsters, Sanders was also backed by a quiet army of low-wage, unorganized workers who have donated to his campaign. Tens of thousands of workers at large nonunion firms like Amazon, Starbucks, and Walmart donated to Bernie. This is no surprise given how Sanders and his campaigns have been fighting these large employers alongside and on behalf of these workers and in some cases winning real material gains. The campaign also supported local activist-led efforts of all kinds turned out supporters for demonstrations and picket lines that had nothing to do with his campaign.

Support among low-wage, mostly nonunion workers helps us see the millions of donations as partially serving the function that membership dues would in a mass party: substantial funding independent of major capitalist donors, which supports class-struggle organizing in and beyond the workplace that, without unions, these workers are mostly unable to achieve, especially at the national level. As of November 2019, 175,000 supporters had signed up for monthly donations to the campaign. (For comparison, the long-established U.K. Labour Party has almost 600,000 dues-paying members.)

Material Infrastructure and Mass Propaganda Apparatus

The millions of dollars the campaign raised from small donors went into building massive campaign operations, with nearly 1,000 staff, traditional and social media, and offices, organizers, literature, and rallies in dozens of states. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers joined the official campaign across the country.

Sanders had an innovative distributed organizing program, including a union members network, which famously helped win the first Iowa satellite caucus and the Nevada hotel workers’ caucuses, and Students for Bernie, which launched in 2019 with a 1,500-student summer organizing school.

The campaign’s media empire deserves special attention. It included countless staff working on propaganda, including social media and short videos, beautiful TV ads, a brilliant podcast, and a newsletter. As this moving article shows, Sanders’s video team was intent on using his campaign’s platform to give voice to the oppressed and exploited of our society. Without a mass working-class party in the United States, there’s no other organization both interested in and capable of maintaining this type of media on a large scale.

The sheer scope of the campaign is itself an important factor: By showing that millions of other people not only share your problems but are willing to fight with you to solve them, Sanders’s campaign inspired more participation and helped to erode the resignation and demoralization that usually undermines collective resistance of any kind.

With the dismantling of Bernie’s campaign infrastructure, the Left will not be able to reach the same audience. We simply cannot reach millions of people on a daily basis if we don’t have at least tens of millions of dollars. And that would still pale in comparison to the power of the corporate mainstream media and the major parties.

Workers’ Parties and Class Formation

By raising expectations and bringing working-class people into struggle under a common program and common organization, the Sanders campaigns helped facilitate the class formation of American workers.

The working class has an interest in fundamentally transforming society and ultimately putting an end to capitalism — and the potential power to do so. But most workers will not necessarily think of themselves as members of the working class or instinctively act together with others to advance their interests as workers. In Marx’s terms, a class that exists in itself does not automatically become a self-conscious class for itself. That is, people in the same class do not automatically think of themselves as having common interests and do not automatically have the ability to act together for their common interest. They have to develop those abilities through common struggle. This is particularly true of the working class, which is exponentially larger and more diverse than any other class.

The fact that class formation doesn’t happen automatically does not mean working-class people are ignorant. On the contrary, it is rational for workers to attempt to advance their interests as individuals by keeping their heads down and working hard when they believe there is no alternative. Class formation is the process by which workers instead self-consciously move into struggle as a group, fighting to advance their collective interests.

This was the task of the mass workers’ parties of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These parties convinced workers to engage in class struggle through political education and propaganda; they brought together workers and unions of all kinds, diverse social movements, and working-class cultural institutions under a common, permanent organization; and they provided comprehensive national programs to unite these movements under one banner. While running candidates is not the only or even the most important thing these parties did, election campaigns were, as Chris Masiano notes, an essential means for putting forward “an alternative governing vision for the whole society [and a] challenge [to] the political leadership of the ruling class.”

Historically, class formation has come about as a result of the efforts of workers building their own organizations, primarily trade unions and political parties. But unions, while essential for our cause, are inherently limited in their ability to unite working people as a class. Because unions depend for their survival on employers’ continued profitability, union leadership faces structural pressures to compromise with employers and even suppress worker militancy. Without the institutional framework of a workers’ party facilitating working-class unity, unions are usually sectional, fighting for one group of workers rather than the working class as a whole. At their worst, some unions have advanced the interests of their own members at the expense of other workers.

Unions are also limited in their capacity to win demands from the government, and so instead they mostly negotiate directly with their employers. This is one reason why the U.S. is the only major country where health insurance is based on employment and is not a universal social right. So, while unions are essential, they are insufficient on their own for building lasting working-class unity beyond individual firms, industries, or localities.

Even with the strongest, most progressive unions, the anarchy of capitalism constantly disorganizes workers and decomposes their solidarity. When manufacturers abandon their factories in the traditionally unionized Midwest, they throw whole communities out of work and kill off the local labor movements that have been built around those jobs. When a disaster like Hurricane Katrina or the coronavirus strikes, it similarly displaces people from jobs and communities to which they might not return. With so much chaos, organizing at the workplace or even city level is insufficient for building and maintaining the organizations and cultures of solidarity needed for collective action. This chaos is exacerbated by divisive ideologies and practices like racism, sexism, and xenophobia. What’s more, workers are segregated by sector, job, education, and geography into racial, national, and gender fragments that are difficult to unify by only organizing at the level of the firm.

That is why mass workers’ parties have been essential to the process of class formation. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) of pre–World War I Germany provides one dramatic illustration of this process. At its height, the SPD helped forge a collective working-class identity and sense of solidarity among millions of workers. In conjunction with a robust union movement and pluralities in parliament, they built a vast network of institutions throughout society, including educational clubs, political and theoretical publications, athletic clubs, grocery stores, and theaters. The activity of mass social-democratic parties has been similarly crucial to defining working-class attitudes and activity in other times and places. Contrary to the determinist view which sees the class structure automatically leading to the formation of parties, Chris Maisano writes that “to a significant extent it was parties that organized classes, not the other way around.”

In addition to the German SPD there are a variety of examples of different forms workers’ parties could take, including Russia’s Bolshevik Party, the American Socialist Party of the early twentieth century, the U.S. Communist Party of the 1930s, the Socialist and Communist Parties in Chile before and during Allende’s presidency, and the Swedish Left Party, the Workers’ Party (PT) and PSOL in Brazil, and Podemos in Spain today. Each of these deserves its own study; there’s much in each example to learn from, emulate, and avoid.

Looking to historical examples of parties and processes of class formation helps us to see why Sanders’s 2020 campaign was such a big advance for the Left. In the absence of a mass workers’ party, the campaign nevertheless brought countless workers into struggle on the basis of a shared working-class identity. Especially important is the way that the campaign helped overcome many workers’ resignation to the status quo. By mobilizing millions around demands like Medicare for All and debt forgiveness, Sanders convinced many that a better world was possible — and that there was a movement willing to fight for it.

But reflection on the historic role of workers’ parties also illustrates the limitations of the Sanders campaign. One problem is that the campaign, unlike a party, had an expiration date. Another is that it was centered around a singular figure, who largely set the agenda for the campaign in an undemocratic fashion from the top-down. And Sanders’s eventual dismantling of his campaign infrastructure and endorsement of the racist corporate Democratic candidate amounts to destroying much of the organization and momentum that his campaign had built.

Building the Party

What kind of party do we want?

It isn’t for us or any socialists to think up in advance the details of how a mass working-class party would work. For such a party to be legitimate, it would need to be formed democratically, with participation from a wide range of working-class leaders, in a process that would probably be messy at first. But we can identify a few core criteria for the kind of party democratic socialists should work to build.

It should be a class party: of and for the working class and independent of capitalists, not a cross-class or “populist” party. It should aim to be a mass party, which means both that it has the participation and support of hundreds of thousands or even millions of workers and is internally democratic. It should be an electoral party, running candidates in elections for office at every level, ultimately on its own ballot line. The party should equally be a permanent vehicle for class struggle beyond elections, coordinating and unifying the many strains of workers’ struggle across society, from workplace fights to youth climate strikes to protests against police violence. It should also carry out political education of its members, growing the ranks of permanent activist cadres who participate in party and social movement organizing and debates.

To create and sustain mass enthusiasm and confidence, workers’ parties must win electoral victories. Once in office, politicians can help workers wage class war within the state, fighting for and winning reforms that benefit workers while empowering them in their struggles throughout society. These wins can advance the working class’s ability and confidence to fight for itself. Such a party is different in kind from the small and purely electoral Green Party or any number of small socialist sects that call themselves parties.

It should also be clear by now why the Democratic Party cannot fulfill the functions of a workers’ party. Not only is it completely undemocratic, but it is fundamentally a capitalist party. Given the superior financial and structural power of the capitalist class, the party usually prioritizes the interests of capital over working people. A party that includes capitalists simply can’t accomplish the tasks we’ve described any more than a union that included both workers and company owners could genuinely represent the workers’ interests. Since workers become junior partners to their mortal enemy, a cross-class party is, as Eugene Debs wrote, a “monstrosity” like “the wolf and the lamb in loving embrace.”

The campaigns of Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez show the value of socialists running on the Democratic ballot line in the present, as contradictory as this is. But socialists should not attempt to turn the capitalist-dominated Democratic Party into a workers’ party. While it is certainly possible to shift the party’s leadership or policy platform leftwards, attempts to completely transform the class composition of the Democratic Party are likely doomed to fail. Instead, the working class must fight for a party of its own.

Immediate Steps

We don’t believe it is possible to form a workers’ party immediately, and we don’t think that voting for a “protest” candidate for president in 2020 meaningfully advances class struggle. But building a working-class political party should be socialists’ major medium-term strategic goal. In the near term, there are three kinds of tasks we can take on to work toward the goal of a party.

First, we should help to revive a democratic, fighting labor movement that can win. Socialists can do that through pursuing the rank-and-file strategy: attempting to rebuild the layer of class-conscious, committed workplace organizers that has been essential to spreading and giving direction to labor militancy. Recreating this “militant minority” and transforming the union movement will be crucial to inspiring working people to fight for themselves. In addition to the main target — the boss — it will be necessary for union workers to overcome the obstacle of a labor bureaucracy that has largely resigned itself and its members to conciliatory negotiating tactics and a dead-end partnership with the Democrats. More generally, socialists should support workplace struggles through solidarity actions, propaganda, and helping workers to organize through projects like EWOC. A revitalized and dramatically larger organized labor movement will almost certainly serve as the mass base of any future workers’ party.

Second, we need to run class-struggle candidates who will be effectively independent of the Democratic Party even if they use its ballot line for now. These campaigns can continue the work of the Sanders campaign in raising workers’ expectations and bringing ever more workers into struggle. They can also help socialists develop the organizing skills and infrastructure that an independent working-class party will rely on. Movement-oriented, class-struggle elections in places like New York City, Chicago, and Austin have built local organizations and given DSA members crucial campaign experience. Like Sanders, candidates should run on comprehensive-yet-simple programs of racial, environmental, and economic justice. More importantly, the campaigns need to be explicit about class politics and the need for independent organization. Running such campaigns will help to further cohere the various working-class movements that the Sanders campaign began to bring together.

Campaigns like these could lay the groundwork for the creation of what Dustin Guastella and Jared Abbott call a “party-surrogate,” or a proto-party organization. Bringing together the groups that supported the Sanders campaign for a convention or series of meetings could be a good start. These gatherings could include groups such as National Nurses United, Sunrise Movement, and DSA at the national level, but such meetings could happen at the local and state levels too. Coalitions between socialists, unions, and progressive organizations should agree on a shared platform based on Bernie’s, and push leftwing politicians and groups to sign on. Adopting this platform would be one condition of receiving an endorsement from these post-Sanders coalitions. Endorsed candidates could then rely on the public support, and perhaps the organizational and financial backing, of the local proto-party.

But Guastella and Abbott are wrong to be agnostic on the question of whether we should try to realign the Democratic Party. They claim that either realignment of the Democratic Party or a dirty break would be an “outcome” of political struggle, not necessarily the result of a conscious strategy. This does not reflect historical experience, where parties formed by socialists and workers’ movements resulted from years or decades of conscious planning and coordination. To build a workers’ party by, say, 2030 — and we believe such a party is a crucial strategic goal for the socialist movement — we need to seriously start laying the groundwork now. Advocating openly for such a party, and explaining the limitations of attempting to build one through the Democratic Party, is a necessary element of that groundwork.

Wherever feasible, we should encourage candidates not to run as Democrats in order to separate ourselves as much as we can from the party’s rulers. For example, there is an argument for doing this in California, where ballot access is not restricted by political parties’ primaries. And because we actually want to win and put socialists in office, in cities and states where ballot access does depend on winning a major party primary, we should remain open to using the Democratic Party ballot line for now.

Finally, we must keep building DSA. DSA is home to a large group of socialist activists who, learning and practicing politics together, are well equipped to help revitalize the labor movement and to run successful class-struggle electoral campaigns. DSA does have serious limitations, of course. Its decentralized structure hampers its ability to execute campaigns on the state or national levels. Its membership is still small, and most of those members are barely more than paper supporters. Demographically, DSA is not representative of the U.S. working class: Its members are disproportionately young, white, and white collar. DSA’s members should work to grow and diversify the organization and develop structures for decision-making and coordination that allow for effective national and regional campaigns. Our hope is that DSA can be an important element in the foundation of a future mass workers’ party.

Marx believed that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” We share that conviction, and we believe that the working class needs a mass party of its own to be able to fight for itself. Socialists should begin to help build that party now.

Nick French and Jeremy G. is a contributor to The Call.