Debates

Todd Chretien: Socialist trends after Bernie

What Bernie Did. A short series. In wrapping up this brief series, Todd Chretien assesses various trends in the U.S. socialist movement after the end of the Sanders campaign. Todd Chretien is a Spanish teacher, translator and author based in Portland, Maine. He is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and the editor of No Borders News

The end of the Bernie Sanders campaign has unsurprisingly opened a period of debate among socialists in the United States. This short review presents contending and converging positions on a number of important questions. The point is not to definitely settle scores (an impossibility at this level of struggle and organization), but to merely present arguments side by side so that readers may draw their own conclusions.

1. Winning the ideological debate

Speaking directly to his supporters, Sanders argued that “Few would deny that over the course of the past five years our movement has won the ideological struggle.”

Sanders’ view represents a rough consensus on the left, although there is a useful discussion calibrating his influence on the teachers’ strike wave and social movement and vice versa. This second-level debate notwithstanding, Sanders has been tweeting support for the Emergency Worker Organizing Committee project launched by DSA and the United Electrical workers and shows no signs of downplaying his critique of the “absurdity and cruelty” of American society.

And an important part of Sanders’ base is holding fast to their raised expectations, forcing the the New York Timesto ask, Vote for Biden? It’s up in the air. Rather than abandoning their politics and adopting Biden’s views as their own, millions of Sanders’ supporters will participate in a difficult and respectful discussion over the coming months about what to do in November. 

And few socialists see the dynamic closing anytime soon. Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara writes, “Bernie Sanders’ revolution is not over.” An assertion seconded by Teen Vogue’s Lucy Diavolo, who insists that “Bernie’s legacy will always include the people he’s inspired, the progressive policies he’s championed, and the movement that came together to support him. Whatever happens in the 2020 election, Senator Sanders will keep fighting. So must we all, now more than ever.” DSA’s national office points out that “workers in the U.S. have no party of their own… it’s up to us to carry forward the hope Bernie gave to millions as we continue building the political revolution.” Meanwhile, Noami Klein notes how Sanders “broke the spell” of neoliberalism in general and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor describes how “reality endorsed” Sanders program in the face of platform in the face of Trump’s coronavirus denialism and Biden’s incoherence. 

[Read next, David Miranda, Fernanda Melchionna, and Sâmia Bomfim: Brazil fights multiple pandemic.]

2. What is right to try?

Drilling down below the consensus, there are some sharper disagreements that center around three answers to the question: was it right to try?

No. 

While the most extreme anti-Sanders position sought to paint his campaign as nothing more or less than New Deal liberalism, this could only be sustained by an almost willful misreading of Sanders’ tremendously radical program.

More thoughtful critiques centered around Sanders’ decision to run in the Democratic primaries. For instance, Blas Reies argues that it was wrong to do so because participating in the Democratic primary implies endorsing a “blood-stained party of imperialism, war, and oppression.” Steven Salaita points to real weaknesses in Sanders’ views on foreign policy, arguing he doesn’t go far enough in backing Palestinian self-determination. Nick Estes warns that, “Ignoring the incompatibility of working-class movements and real decolonization with ruling class parties is a grave mistake.” And Charlie Post and Ashley Smith contend it was wrong for socialists to back Sanders as this represented nothing more than the “utopianism of the dirty break strategy [that] has led many back to the old realignment strategy that they initially rejected.” Whether or not they proved their case is open for debate.

Socialists who backed Sanders would be wrong to denigrate these latter critiques as they hit upon real truths and are themselves long-term organizers embedded in core struggles against imperialism and exploitation. Rather, we should take a cue from Estes who emphasized that, despite not endorsing Sanders, “we’re not applauding the loss of life-saving reforms, such as universal healthcare, housing rights, and worker protections. To do so is nihilism.” 

Real tensions on the left can only be overcome by genuine debate, common work, and a broader and more intense level of social and class struggle. And on a personal note, as someone who systematicallyargued versions of this case for most of my political life, I am not surprised that comrades are coming to divergent points of view.

Yes, but…

A second group of comrades argued that supporting Sanders potentially made sense as a means to build the left, but that in practice it risked diverting resources from more effectively building socialist organization. For instance, speaking about DSA, Andrew Sernatinger warns that “We should have the larger view of how our forces can come out of this election stronger rather than employ a get-rich-quick scheme of going all-in for Sanders.” Alan Mass challenges this interpretation, based on his experience in the Chicago DSA, pointing out that “election activity, even when it is the immediate priority for DSA, doesn’t have to overshadow everything else and neglect building socialist and left-wing organization for future struggles.”

One particularly interesting iteration of this assessment was inspired by rap artist, movie director, and long-time Oakland-based revolutionary Boots Riley’s decision to endorse Sanders. Building on Boots’ tweets, Pranav Jani explores the relationship between social movements, struggle, and imperialism, arguing that the left ought to resist any tendency to sugar coat the limitations of a potential Sanders presidency, even while backing his campaign critically, “I have absolutely no illusions about, for instance, what a Bernie presidency would mean in an India run by the BJP and RSS. While talking some about human rights and all that, a President Sanders would find a way to work with Modi. And so voting for Bernie is not just about policy (and Medicare for All is a damn good idea!), but an open acknowledgement of the Sanders campaign as having tapped into something incredibly transformative.”

Yes, and…

While the first two trends raise useful arguments, they were overshadowed by a much more influential current in the new socialist movement that supported Sanders’ campaign wholeheartedly. This is unsurprising as the large majority of its members first joined the movement in and around Sanders’ 2016 campaign, while they have been joined by thousands more in 2020. 

While critical of Sanders own political limitations and cognizant of the limitations of elections in general, most DSA members experienced Sanders’ campaigns as personally radicalizing and political cohering experiences. For instance, Lisa Gilmam writes, “The Bernie Sanders campaign changed my life. Before 2016 I was well aware of many of the unconscionable injustices in our society and I knew that capitalism was to blame for the lion’s share of them. But I didn’t think that there was really anything to be done about it.” Hawo Mohamed reminds us that Sanders was not the only one of the socialist leaders inspiring a new generation, as “seeing Ilhan Omar, a fellow Somali woman run and win a seat in Congress, and later fully endorse and campaign for Bernie,” helped win her to the cause.

Any real discussion of the new socialist movement must center on what the new socialists themselves think and do. And there is simply no basis for believing this generation will rise and fall with Sanders’ electoral fortunes. For instance, on one critical question, Jeremy Gong puts it like this, “Bernie should not have abandoned his lifelong commitment to an independent workers party. In order for Bernie to reach millions of people the way he did, it was a brilliant move to run in the Democratic Party primary for structural or procedural reason. [But] there’s no reason he couldn’t have taken advantage of the openness of the primary structure while also rhetorically explaining why the working class ultimately will need its own party, even if that ‘ultimately’ isn’t until after eight years of a Sanders presidency.”

There are many more examples of this type of commentary and rather than listing them, I will simply point to Jacobin as a convenient site to locate more of them.

[Read next, Jessy Ní Cheallaigh: Ireland flattens the curve, but socialist policies needed.]

3. Where do we go from here? 

So where does this leave the socialist movement in the United States? Fortunately, there is a lot to unite us, even as we carry out medium-term debates. In the most immediate sense, most socialists are focusing on building mutual aid, solidarity with essential workers, workplace organizing, and wildcatstrikes in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. In the medium term, a debate over how to build up the forces for an independent workers party will continue for some time to come.

There is a small minority socialists who argue that the process must be put in motion immediately and the time has come to cease and desist attempts to run socialists candidates on Democratic Party ballot lines, instead we must solely run candidates on independent or socialist ballot lines. Others see the outlines of a new part emerging, but remain open to a different strategies as the movement builds its forces.

The dominant trend within DSA can point to Sanders, AOC, Tlaib, and Omar’s success, as well as a growing list of down-ballot candidates, running as open socialists on Democratic ballot lines as part of a dirty break strategy. Some analysists place greater emphasis on workplace and class organization and institutions as a condition for electoral success, others stress the politicizing role of insurgent socialistelection campaigns as movement-building tools.

And there are even some voices that counsel lining up behind the lesser-evil with little sense of what to build in its place. No doubt, individuals will take a side in what most people will see as a plebiscite on Trump, and most socialists will treat this decision in a reasonable fashion. Fortunately, the bulk of the new socialist movement rejects such liberal compliance with the two-party system.

The vast majority of the DSA and the new socialist movement stands outside these relatively well-defined trends, and the vast majority of the U.S. working class remains outside the movement altogether. The pandemic and accelerating depression will make sustained resistance difficult, even as inspiring examples abound. As we should except, each socialist trend will be able to point to facts and actions in the immediate circumstance to back up its position so long as the level of struggle remains fragmented. However, the degree to which each trend grows and becomes influential in the workers movement as a whole will be the degree to which each trend accumulate forces over time, demonstrates its strategic clarity and tactical flexibility, and is able to win over part of a generation of fighters to their views and organizations. The proof will be in the pudding. 

[For international coronavirus crisis coverage and news and analysis from socialist and working-class points of view, read No Borders News.]