The Afterbern

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950
Jack­son Pol­lock, Autumn Rhythm (Num­ber 30), 1950

One of the most sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal sto­ries of the year is the mete­oric rise of a lit­tle-known, sev­enty-four year old, self-pro­claimed “demo­c­ra­tic social­ist” sen­a­tor from the small state of Ver­mont. Although he may win many of the remain­ing con­tests, it seems extremely unlikely that Bernie Sanders will clinch the Demo­c­ra­tic nom­i­na­tion. Nev­er­the­less, his bid for the pres­i­dency has dra­mat­i­cally, per­haps irre­versibly, changed the polit­i­cal land­scape in this coun­try. At this point, the ques­tion for social­ists is not whether or not to sup­port Bernie’s cam­paign, but rather: what do we do now? What, if any polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties have emerged, and how can we seize these oppor­tu­ni­ties to advance rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics? To answer that, we first need to deter­mine exactly how Bernie has changed the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in the United States.

The Sanders cam­paign did not emerge from nowhere. All move­ments exist within wider microsys­tems of strug­gle, and the com­plex entan­gle­ment and over­lap­ping of recent social move­ments made his cam­paign pos­si­ble. With­out Occupy, Black Lives Mat­ter, the Fight for 15, the mobi­liza­tion of teach­ers and nurses, immi­grant move­ments, and many other strug­gles, there would never have been a Sanders cam­paign. He has ben­e­fited enor­mously from the hard work of these ear­lier strug­gles. He has tapped into exist­ing net­works to raise an army of vol­un­teers. He has, for bet­ter or worse, adopted much of the polit­i­cal lan­guage of these other move­ments. No one in these move­ments fore­saw Bernie’s spec­tac­u­lar rise, but they all pre­pared it.

While Sanders has in some ways chan­neled these move­ments, he has not facil­i­tated their “recu­per­a­tion,” as many social­ists orig­i­nally feared. Instead of defus­ing and con­tain­ing rad­i­cal ideas, his cam­paign has helped pro­lif­er­ate them. Rad­i­cal activists, many of whom often appeared antag­o­nis­tic to both his cam­paign and the entire elec­toral process, not only pushed Sanders to the left, but forced him to use his can­di­dacy as a tri­bune to pop­u­lar­ize and com­bine many pre­ex­ist­ing, seem­ingly sep­a­rate demands: a fif­teen dol­lar min­i­mum wage, an end to mass incar­cer­a­tion, uni­ver­sal health­care, free health­care, free edu­ca­tion, decrim­i­nal­iz­ing mar­i­juana, legal­iz­ing thou­sands of immi­grants, and ban­ning frack­ing, to name only a few. These pres­sures also led him to issue a whole spate of polit­i­cal state­ments that no Pres­i­den­tial can­di­date would dare to utter in the United States. He pub­licly denounced the his­tory of Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism on national tele­vi­sion. He advo­cated for the rights of Pales­tini­ans in a coun­try where almost no one in pub­lic office would even use the word “Palestine.” Like the Black Pan­thers, he has called the police an “occu­py­ing army.”

To be sure, most of these ideas are com­mon­place for most on the far left, and they do not on their own con­sti­tute social­ism in any rec­og­niz­able sense of the term. Indeed, Sanders him­self is not a social­ist. He never refers to the vibrant his­tory of social­ist strug­gles in this coun­try, even though he once made a doc­u­men­tary about Eugene V. Debs. When he does speak of social­ism, he points to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal or mod­ern Den­mark. Like all social democ­rats, he wants a more equi­table and robust social wel­fare state, not the abo­li­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. All that said, in pro­lif­er­at­ing the mes­sages of rad­i­cal move­ments, even if artic­u­lat­ing them in a social demo­c­ra­tic frame­work, his cam­paign has had an unde­ni­able impact on mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, above all young Amer­i­cans, who were unfa­mil­iar with such ideas, too afraid to embrace them, or had dis­missed them as impos­si­ble. A recent Har­vard Poll showed that young people’s polit­i­cal atti­tudes have already changed con­sid­er­ably just over the past year, and the polling direc­tor, John Della Volpe, has pin­pointed Sanders as one of the pri­mary causes. “He’s not mov­ing a party to the left,” he con­cluded, he’s “mov­ing a gen­er­a­tion to the left.”

In addi­tion, Sanders has helped draw lines of demar­ca­tion. Although most of his usual tar­gets, such as “bil­lion­aires” or “Wall Street,” remain either ter­ri­bly obvi­ous or hope­lessly vague, he has pub­licly named the “cap­i­tal­ists” as an enemy class, iden­ti­fied “cap­i­tal­ism” as the prob­lem, and advo­cated “polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion” as the solu­tion. He has argued, before mil­lions who are only now begin­ning to seri­ously think about things like “cap­i­tal­ism,” that prob­lems in this soci­ety are not per­sonal or iso­lated, but sys­temic, and that the only way for­ward is to rad­i­cally and col­lec­tively over­haul that sys­tem. On its own, this argu­ment is banal, but the fact that it’s res­onat­ing with mil­lions is remark­able. The same Har­vard Uni­ver­sity poll revealed, for exam­ple, that 51% of Amer­i­cans between the ages of 18 and 29 do not sup­port cap­i­tal­ism. Of course, it’s not clear what respon­dents under­stand by the word “cap­i­tal­ism,” but it’s a very good start, espe­cially in a coun­try like the United States.

At the same time, the com­pletely unex­pected suc­cess of the Sanders cam­paign has forced many peo­ple, orga­ni­za­tions, and insti­tu­tions to drop their veneer of neu­tral­ity to sav­agely attack him. But their assaults, increas­ingly wild and extreme, have in turn allowed mil­lions of Amer­i­cans to see them for what they really are. Although most Amer­i­cans have not trusted the main­stream media for some time – a recent poll revealed that only 6% of Amer­i­cans have con­fi­dence in the press – the media’s overt bias has prompted many peo­ple, above all the youth, to politi­cize their dis­trust, with many now regard­ing much of the main­stream media, espe­cially seem­ingly objec­tive news­pa­pers, like the Wash­ing­ton Post or the New York Times, as lit­tle more than the pro­pa­ganda arm of the rul­ing class. Seem­ingly pro­gres­sive and reli­able polit­i­cal fig­ures and pun­dits have now outed them­selves as reac­tionar­ies. At the same time, the Demo­c­ra­tic Party has revealed itself to be one of the most sig­nif­i­cant imped­i­ments to mean­ing­ful social change in this coun­try.

Even more impor­tant than cir­cu­lat­ing rad­i­cal ideas, call­ing for sys­tem­atic trans­for­ma­tion, and reveal­ing ene­mies, the Sanders cam­paign has trig­gered a kind of mass mobi­liza­tion. Mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, many of whom have never voted before, are now attend­ing ral­lies, join­ing marches, donat­ing to the cam­paign, mak­ing tele­phone calls, knock­ing on doors, lead­ing grass­roots teams. While com­mit­ment to a bour­geois elec­tion is in itself no sign of rad­i­cal­ism, it does have the poten­tial to cre­ate future oppor­tu­ni­ties for social­ist pol­i­tics. In mobi­liz­ing peo­ple, espe­cially younger peo­ple, in this way, the cam­paign has helped con­nect activists from dif­fer­ent move­ments, draw new­com­ers into exist­ing polit­i­cal net­works, and train a new gen­er­a­tion of poten­tial orga­niz­ers.

Com­po­si­tion­ally, these rad­i­cal­ized Sanders sup­port­ers are a very diverse group. In many con­tests, espe­cially open ones, Sanders has split or won the female vote. In fact, although the main­stream media would never make men­tion of this, Bernie’s strongest sup­port seems to come from young women. In Iowa, for exam­ple, 84% of women under 30 voted for Sanders. In terms of racial diver­sity, he remains the favored can­di­date among Native, Arab, and Asian Amer­i­cans. Nation­ally, some polls indi­cate he splits the sup­port of Latin@ vot­ers with Hillary. He won Hawaii, the most diverse state in the coun­try, by a land­slide.

The major excep­tion, of course, is older African Amer­i­cans, and espe­cially older black women. Even if Sanders is favored by many blacks, espe­cially black youth, he con­sis­tently wins far fewer votes than Hillary Clin­ton. The rea­sons are very com­plex, and I can only indi­cate a few ele­ments of an answer here: the destruc­tion of autonomous rad­i­cal black orga­ni­za­tions since the 1970s, the sub­se­quent absorp­tion of blacks into the Demo­c­ra­tic Party, the rise of a black bour­geoisie whose quar­rel is not with the sys­tem but with access to the sys­tem, the close con­nec­tion between the black lead­er­ship class and the Demo­c­ra­tic Party, the role of the black church, the legacy of Bill Clin­ton and the power of the Clin­ton brand, high absten­tion rates among poor blacks, the fact that in some places one out of four black men are dis­en­fran­chised, and the jus­ti­fied fear of racist ter­ror, espe­cially in the South, which led many to vote for the most “elec­table” can­di­date. Another fac­tor might be lack of expo­sure, or more pre­cisely, dif­fer­en­tial access to infor­ma­tion – a 2014 study found that only 45% of senior blacks are inter­net users and just 30% have broad­band at home, sig­nif­i­cantly less than whites with a sim­i­lar demo­graphic pro­file. In fail­ing to win the sup­port of many African Amer­i­cans, espe­cially black work­ers, the Sanders cam­paign has high­lighted prob­a­bly the great­est strate­gic ques­tion for all rad­i­cals today: deter­min­ing the polit­i­cal class com­po­si­tion of African Amer­i­cans at a time when the first black Pres­i­dent pre­pares to leave office.

Bernie’s base is the work­ing class and youth. With a few notable excep­tions, most impor­tantly the above-men­tioned older black work­ers, Sanders has suc­cess­fully pulled together a num­ber of dis­tinct sec­tors of the U.S. work­ing class: those with col­lege degrees and those with­out, rural and urban, union­ized and non-union­ized, white and non­white. While many work­ers – from coal min­ers to com­puter pro­gram­mers, nurses to trans­porta­tion work­ers, teach­ers to fast food work­ers – have tem­porar­ily lined up behind the demo­c­ra­tic social­ist from Ver­mont, those under 35 have offered the deep­est sup­port, not only cast­ing bal­lots, but throw­ing them­selves head­long into cam­paign orga­niz­ing.

In fact, youth sup­port extends even beyond the work­ing class. Indeed, it seems that age, more than any other fac­tor, deter­mi­nes one’s polit­i­cal pro­cliv­i­ties today. In a num­ber of states, for exam­ple, over 80% of vot­ers under the age of 30 sup­port Sanders. By the same token, the major­ity dis­trusts Hillary Clin­ton. In fact, Clinton’s sin­gle most reli­able base of sup­port comes from vot­ers over 50. There are a num­ber of rea­sons why seniors, both black and white, dis­like Sanders, even though he’s promised to dra­mat­i­cally expand social secu­rity, but I won­der again if lack of con­nec­tiv­ity, an inabil­ity to nav­i­gate the inter­net, and an over-reliance on mass media – which is strongly biased against Sanders – may play a greater role than is often acknowl­edged.

This kind of mass polit­i­cal polar­iza­tion along sharp gen­er­a­tional lines has not existed since the 1960s and 1970s. But while the youth mobi­liza­tion of the 1960s was in part made pos­si­ble by a self-con­scious “youth move­ment” medi­ated by music, sex, drugs, con­sumerism, and a belief in the allegedly inher­ent eman­ci­pa­tory poten­tial of youth, if young peo­ple today have banded together around rad­i­cal ideas, it’s not because of some “youth cul­ture.” It’s because young peo­ple lived through an era of fic­ti­tious eco­nomic growth, then a dev­as­tat­ing cri­sis that dis­pelled all illu­sions, leav­ing them noth­ing but stag­ger­ingly high debt, unem­ploy­ment, and no future. For them, pol­i­tics is no fad; it’s become a ques­tion of life and death – espe­cially when one rec­og­nizes that we are deal­ing with the first gen­er­a­tion to fully rec­og­nize the imme­di­acy of eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter, which many are increas­ingly, and cor­rectly, link­ing to cap­i­tal­ism.

What we have emerg­ing, then, is a new, diverse cohort of pre­dom­i­nantly young peo­ple, the major­ity of whom belong to the work­ing class or a col­laps­ing “mid­dle class,” now open to social­ist ideas, clam­or­ing for sys­tem­atic change, and who are increas­ingly net­worked, trained, and expe­ri­enced in orga­niz­ing. The vast major­ity of these peo­ple are, like Bernie, not social­ists in any speci­fic his­tor­i­cal sense, but they are will­ing to fight for major changes. The poten­tial here is enor­mous, and for this, we have to thank the Sanders cam­paign, whether or not we like Bernie’s social demo­c­ra­tic pol­i­tics.

The major ques­tion, of course, is what hap­pens next. It’s very pos­si­ble that these young, politi­cized Sanders sup­port­ers will be incor­po­rated into the Demo­c­ra­tic Party. If Bernie wins the nom­i­na­tion, the risks are enor­mous. But even if he doesn’t, which seems far more likely now, he may pro­duce the same effect if he throws his weight behind Clin­ton at the Con­ven­tion in July. Or pos­si­bly, if Hillary emerges vic­to­ri­ous, she may tap some­one like Eliz­a­beth War­ren to serve as Vice Pres­i­dent as part of some cal­cu­lated strat­egy to win over Bernie’s sup­port­ers. It is also safe to assume that the Demo­c­ra­tic Party will itself try to make the most of this oppor­tu­nity by orga­niz­ing many of these young peo­ple into its ranks. All this high­lights the great con­tra­dic­tion of Bernie’s cam­paign: he would not have reached – and rad­i­cal­ized – such a vast audi­ence if he did not run as a Democ­rat, but in work­ing within the Demo­c­ra­tic Party, he has poten­tially wed­ded this new audi­ence to per­haps the great­est coun­ter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary force in the United States.

It is also pos­si­ble that this energy will dis­si­pate in the fol­low­ing few months. A Clin­ton vic­tory – or more accu­rately a vote against Don­ald Trump – may demor­al­ize a gen­er­a­tion already deeply sus­pi­cious of the “rigged” polit­i­cal process. And if by some chance Bernie wins but then fails to real­ize cru­cial aspects of his vision, that, too, will result in dis­il­lu­sion­ment, just as Obama dis­ap­pointed his sup­port­ers (though it should be noted that this did not lead them to drop out of pol­i­tics, but to rally around Bernie). Instead of empow­er­ing young peo­ple to over­throw the sys­tem, the cam­paign may ulti­mately lead many to resign them­selves to its inevitabil­ity.

These pos­si­ble out­comes have been dis­cussed before. But noth­ing is pre­de­ter­mined. The far left can have a hand in how all of this plays out, which leads to a third pos­si­bil­ity: unit­ing all of these new social­ists into an autonomous rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion.

Unfor­tu­nately, while there is much talk on the mat­ter, includ­ing a “People’s Sum­mit” in Chicago and prepa­ra­tions for a far more rad­i­cal social­ist con­ver­gence in July with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from many of the exist­ing far left cur­rents in the United States, rad­i­cals have not yet devised a coher­ent strat­egy. As it stands, the de facto approach has been for orga­ni­za­tions to “recruit” young Sanders sup­port­ers – or more pre­cisely, wait for these sup­port­ers to mag­i­cally fall into their lap. To my mind, this seems doomed to fail­ure. Even if exist­ing social­ist orga­ni­za­tions suc­ceed in fun­nel­ing some Bernie sup­port­ers into their ranks, we can’t move for­ward by divid­ing this new mass of politi­cized young peo­ple into tiny groups that have out­lived their his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions. While they might try to rebrand them­selves for the twenty-first cen­tury, inherited orga­ni­za­tions do not, and in fact can­not, speak to the needs of a new cycle of strug­gle.

We need new forms of orga­ni­za­tion that are appro­pri­ate to our his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture. While we should cer­tainly fos­ter a diverse con­stel­la­tion of orga­ni­za­tions for dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions, it’s becom­ing clear that we need some kind of bind­ing ele­ment to link these dis­tinct ini­tia­tives, cam­paigns, strug­gles, and move­ments. The sym­bolic fig­ure of Sanders may have ten­u­ously and unevenly drawn dif­fer­ent seg­ments together, but only an autonomous, rad­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion tai­lored to present con­di­tions can make sure their encoun­ter not only takes hold, but con­tin­ues to develop in poten­tially rev­o­lu­tion­ary direc­tions.

I there­fore sug­gest that if Amer­i­can rad­i­cals really care about mak­ing the most of this upsurge, they should con­sider dis­solv­ing their exist­ing for­ma­tions to cre­ate the nucleus of a new kind of orga­ni­za­tion capa­ble of play­ing this role. Such a call may seem pre­sump­tu­ous, but let us recall that the most suc­cess­ful orga­ni­za­tional forms of the past, that is to say, those orga­ni­za­tions most attuned to the needs of their time, them­selves emerged from the liq­ui­da­tion, rad­i­cal recom­bi­na­tion, and sub­se­quent trans­for­ma­tion of the ele­ments of exist­ing groups, net­works, and col­lec­tives.

Nor­mally, I oppose such calls for “Left Unity” since they usu­ally amount to noth­ing more than purely abstract and rhetor­i­cal state­ments of sol­i­dar­ity between groups with no real con­nec­tion to mass strug­gles. But in this case, we are faced with what is in many respects a kind of a mass move­ment, even if it’s pass­ing under the guise of an elec­tion cam­paign. Most impor­tantly, this move­ment is intri­cately inter­twined with other vibrant, more mil­i­tant strug­gles in which the far left is in fact closely involved. This rad­i­cal ecosys­tem is the con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­ity for a new orga­ni­za­tion. Unity will come, there­fore, not from any shared ide­o­log­i­cal plat­form, but through com­mon strug­gle.

Our chances for such a qual­i­ta­tive leap are more pro­pi­tious than they have been in decades. The estab­lished polit­i­cal con­fig­u­ra­tion in the United States hasn’t been this vul­ner­a­ble since the 1970s. The Repub­li­can Party is under­go­ing a pro­found struc­tural trans­for­ma­tion, and Trump’s impend­ing nom­i­na­tion has pro­voked defec­tions and a poten­tial mutiny. The Demo­c­ra­tic Party is being pulled in two direc­tions and may be headed for a con­tested con­ven­tion. Record num­bers of Amer­i­cans are leav­ing both par­ties ­– 43% now iden­tify as Inde­pen­dents, as opposed to 30% as Democ­rats and only 26% as Repub­li­can. Across the board tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans are reject­ing “estab­lish­ment pol­i­tics,” turn­ing to either Trump or Sanders.

We should also be encour­aged by the fact that many of these newly rad­i­cal­ized Sanders sup­port­ers may already be pre­pared to break with the logic of the polit­i­cal sys­tem – accord­ing to one poll, for instance, one third of Sanders sup­port­ers say they won’t vote for Clin­ton in the gen­eral elec­tion. But with­out a viable alter­na­tive in the form of an orga­ni­za­tional pres­ence, we won’t be able to trans­form this inchoate #BernieOr­Bust sen­ti­ment into rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics. And if, against all odds, Sanders wins, it is very likely that only a uni­fied, alter­na­tive orga­ni­za­tion embed­ded in today’s many ongo­ing strug­gles can pre­vent rad­i­cal­ized Sanders sup­port­ers from inte­grat­ing into a fun­da­men­tally unre­formable Demo­c­ra­tic Party. In short, we need an orga­ni­za­tion to fuse together the mil­lions of enthu­si­as­tic peo­ple who may oth­er­wise dis­perse or find them­selves sub­sumed and then dis­or­ga­nized by the state appa­ra­tuses.

With such excep­tion­ally high stakes, the far left, usu­ally so minus­cule and inef­fec­tual in this coun­try, needs to devise a shared, coher­ent orga­ni­za­tional strat­egy. Now, more than ever, we need an orga­ni­za­tion to con­tinue rad­i­cal­iz­ing newer gen­er­a­tions, keep peo­ple engaged in con­tem­po­rary strug­gles, unite dis­parate move­ments, artic­u­late dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the work­ing class, pre­serve con­ti­nu­ity between waves of strug­gles, fash­ion a com­mon project, and, above all, seize power – by which I do not mean sim­ply win­ning a cou­ple seats in Con­gress as some purely elec­toral party, but over­throw­ing cap­i­tal­ism through a mass rev­o­lu­tion­ary upheaval that unfolds both against and within the state appa­ra­tuses. There hasn’t been this much inter­est in rad­i­cal change, nor this much anger against cap­i­tal­ism in the United States since the 1970s. If we, as com­mit­ted social­ists, miss this moment, the future will never for­give us.

A shorter ver­sion of this arti­cle  appears as part of the sym­po­sium, “Wel­come Back Mr. Social­ism,” hosted by Com­mon­ware.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.