Bernie Sanders’ recent campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination has been credited with sparking a renewal of interest in the idea of socialism. Whenever Sanders simply said the word “socialism” during a campaign speech, online search engines experienced huge spikes in the number of queries about socialism and related topics.
There can’t be any doubt that millions of Americans who had little to no acquaintance with the idea of socialism were drawn to investigate this word, with so many divergent and even contradictory definitions, to find out exactly what Bernie Sanders meant when he called himself a “democratic socialist”.
However, for those viewing this phenomenon from a Marxist perspective, far too much credit is being given to a single politician, however influential. There is a more dialectical relationship, rooted in social and economic conditions, between Sanders and the resurgent interest in radical alternatives to capitalism.
Sanders’ contribution to the revival of socialist ideas is undeniable. For the first time in over two generations, millions of Americans have begun to consider socialism as a potential solution to problems- endless wars, poverty, lack of access to healthcare and education, unemployment, racism, sexism, the steady erosion of democratic rights and civil liberties- that both main capitalist parties have neither the ability, nor the inclination, to address.
Why is this so, other than the spotlight on Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination? Why did he get a sympathetic hearing from so many Americans as a self-described democratic socialist, when in elections past a candidate calling themselves a social-democrat, in addition to being relentlessly Red-baited, probably wouldn’t have made it anywhere close to being one of the final two contenders for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination?
Bernie Sanders got a hearing because he was expressing, in extremely conservative tones, ideas which millions of Americans have already embraced in the years leading up to his electoral campaign. Sanders, in my opinion, played very little role in creating this sentiment, this search for new solutions to problems that seem insurmountable for our two ruling parties sitting in “gridlock”, although both seem consistently able to act in a spirit of “bipartisan” unanimity when legislation that benefits their corporate paymasters is up for a vote.
He merely acted as a pole of attraction for those who had already embraced the perspectives and proposals of his campaign, which was designed to paddle the struggle for those goals up a parliamentary creek, and then toss the paddle overboard.
Sanders did not bring forth the increasing interest in socialist ideas with his potent rhetoric, magnetic charisma, and irresistible charm. The blatantly imperialist wars waged by the American capitalist class and it’s allies in the Middle East radicalized untold numbers of my generation. The capitalist crisis of 2008, the worst since the Great Depression of 1929, threw nearly two decades of smug neoliberal orthodoxy and end-of-history triumphalism into open question and public debate.
The Occupy Movement, for all it’s faults, rose up, reached millions with its anti-capitalist message, and put the question of class (albeit in a distorted form) back up for debate after decades of liberal claptrap about “the affluent society” and “social mobility” rendering class unimportant, transitory, or even non-existent. The influence of the Occupy Movement was perhaps most powerfully demonstrated by the fact that many ruling-class politicians, including former president Barack Obama, felt obliged to adopt some of its nomenclature, such as the “99%” slogan. Similar movements sprang up from Brazil to Egypt, from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the shores of the Persian Gulf, from Caracas to Athens. In Wisconsin, the largest and most militant American strike movement in decades, erupted with enough force to transgress the boundaries of a purely economic strike, and took on some of the attributes of a mass political strike.
The massive 2006 immigrant’s rights protests saw millions mobilize across the country, in numbers approaching the recent nationwide women’s march. The explosive entry of the Black Lives Matter onto the national stage questioned the liberal myth of the “post-racial” society, bringing attention to pervasive police brutality, and the murder of scores of Black and other oppressed people by officers with no apparent fear of prosecution. And much of this took place under the administration of a Black “progressive” Democratic president, who did not preside over the passage of a single piece of legislation even approaching the ambition of a Keynesian New Deal program, despite a strong mandate for structural reforms, as well a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress from 2009-2011.
Without this accumulation of social and economic contradictions, Sanders would have been all but ignored. Perhaps he would’ve gained prominence on the fringes of his party, similar to Ron Paul’s following among Republicans. But he certainly wouldn’t have made it to the final two, to a position that required shady maneuvers and underhanded tactics at the DNC to keep him from possibly winning the nomination.
Sanders’ campaign must be set in this context in order to be properly understood, and the man himself de-emphasized as the driving force behind this upsurge. Far more important are the prevailing objective conditions since 2001, and especially 2008, and the mass movements that grew up in them. These movements beat Sanders to the punch by years, had a far greater influence on developments, mobilized millions in mass action, and went much further in their critique of American exceptionalism, neoliberalism, racism, sexism,homophobia, nativism, Islamophobia, militarism, imperialism, and the capitalist root of which they are all branches.
The dialectical relationship between Sanders and the beginning of a new chapter in the long history of American socialism is characterized by objective conditions giving rise to these mass movements (and also, it should be noted, to the rise of Trump among the most backward sections of the working-class), which arose mostly independent of both wings of the rotating two-party dictatorship of capital, and developed their own critiques, producing a reaction in the ruling-class. The ruling-class takes that critique, waters it down, and repackages it in tight parliamentary wrapping in the person of Bernie Sanders, and it then impacts the movement of which it is a caricature. Which again clashes up against the ruling-class strategies for stabilizing the rule of capital, and so on.
We know that history is made by the masses and by classes. We should give credit to the common sense and intelligence of the workers and oppressed people for this new interest in socialist ideas, which predates Sanders’ campaign, of which Sanders is merely a distorted echo, born partly from his own social-democratic convictions, and partly from the ruling-class need for a “left” sheep-dog for Hillary Clinton. Millions of Americans who looked on Sanders as a solution must now consider whether to continue to support the Jesse Jackson, Dennis Kucinich, and Bernie Sanders types, who play the objective role of fortifying illusions in the Democratic Party as a progressive force. It is these types that make that the Democrats all the more effective as political representatives of capital. They provide the party with a left-wing cover as it goes about it’s actual function- protecting capitalist property, privileges, and profit.
We created Sanders. He is the cracked, distorted mirror of the aspirations which so many working-class and oppressed Americans have embraced before his campaign even began. The mass movements that preceded him, whose slogans he appropriated while emptying them of much of their radical content, are the expression of the hopes of millions. Sanders, regardless of his personal integrity and intentions, is the expression of the frantic efforts of the ruling-class to neutralize these hopes and demands by bottling them up in the graveyard of social movements, the Democratic Party. All across the country, socialist organizations- such as Democratic Socialists of America, now approaching 15,000 members- are experiencing unprecedented growth in the fallout of the elections. Whether they will be successful in advancing the interests of workers and oppressed people in the face of decades of reactionary legislation and government by both main capitalist parties is directly dependent on their absolute political and organizational independence from those parties.
Only when American workers and oppressed people form their own mass organizations, and reinvigorate existing ones, especially the trade unions, giving concrete and sustained expression to the aspirations which have animated the massive protests of the last 15 years, can the real work begin. Only when we resolve to make a clean break with both parties of Wall Street can we begin to fight effectively. Only when we break through illusions in an electoral savior like Sanders, who criticizes wars, huge military spending, and racism, yet votes to fund those very same wars, projects like the F-35 fighter, and aid packages to racist settler-colonial states like Israel, can we begin building an effective alternative.
Only when we wage our struggle on the foundation of our own organized strength can we break the haughty power of the capitalist class and its enforcement arm in Washington. Only by waging this struggle on multiple fronts-especially in our workplaces and in our communities, not just on the field of electoral politics- can we can defeat the major offensive now being prepared against us by the new administration. Only by building resistance on the basis of the united front, and eventually, an independent party of labor and oppressed people, can we reverse the tide. And, in the end, only by establishing a workers’ government can we have, for the first time in this country, a government of the people, for the people, by the people.
Image source In These Times