Bernie Sanders, socialism, and the 2016 elections

Little surprises me these days – I don’t know if it’s age, or what. But the long quote below from a recent post in Jacobin has me shaking my head.

“We need to understand this point well if we want to make the most of the opportunities presented by the Sanders campaign, especially if Bernie follows through on his plans to give a “major speech” about socialism. [This] will be a great occasion for the Left to debate our own meanings of socialism – but only if we silence our inner Anderson Coopers and discuss Bernie’s ideas on their own terms without worrying about how they impact his electability.”

“Here’s a piece of blasphemy,” the author continues: “there are bigger political stakes this year than the winner of the next presidential election. We have a rare opportunity to redefine and revitalize socialism for a new generation and set the terms for an opposition movement that can really change the world.”

Bigger stakes?

I find it hard to buy the idea that one potential outcome of next year’s elections – the right wing gaining control of all three branches of government – is less significant than the opportunity of the left to debate its understanding of socialism.

To make such a claim isn’t “blasphemy” – it’s stupidity.

If the Republicans win the presidency and retain their majority in the Senate and House, politics will quickly become really nasty. After all, consensus and civility aren’t their governing style. Breaking heads and using power ruthlessly is. And it’s no mystery what will be in their crosshairs: the democratic rights and living standards of the American people and the organizations that defend and fight for them.

Thus, the idea that the main mission of socialists next year is to tweak their vision of socialism given these “stakes” and while everyone else is beating the bushes to defeat the right strikes me as a modern day version of Nero fiddling as Rome burned. It is In fundamentally misguided.

This may seem a bit harsh, but only someone very detached from the everyday lives of working people, only someone camping out in the world of political abstractions, only someone who fails to understand that politics is more like algebra and physics than simple math, and only someone who is clueless about the role of the left would suggest that the outcome of the presidential election and the elections in general isn’t of paramount importance.

Fortunately, this sort of thinking isn’t representative of many people on the left, starting with Bernie Sanders himself. Here’s a self-identified ‘democratic socialist’ drawing huge crowds, speaking to millions of people, and polling very well, but his main message isn’t his socialist pedigree.

While Sanders doesn’t run away from his socialist identity, it isn’t the first thing out of his mouth on the campaign trail, or even the last thing. Instead, his main pitch is his relentless opposition to inequality, austerity, unemployment, and the declining living standards of working people.

When he walks into an auditorium, his thunder against the right wing and the billionaire class is accompanied by proposals for reforms, many of which are far-reaching and bold. He offers a powerful challenge to the reigning orthodoxy of the past thirty years of both parties – neoliberalism, at the core of which is wealth redistribution upward, privatization, financialization, and deregulation.

Sanders, in other words, isn’t stumping for socialism in the first or last place. He knows that social transformation isn’t on the agenda of the American people at this moment. But he also knows what is: a message that locates their plight in the corporate pillaging of our economy and government and offers solutions that go beyond what either party has proposed up to now.

Moreover, Sanders, shrewd as he is, also knows well that his vision of change requires the dislodging of the right wing from its perch in the nation’s capital first of all. The ultra-right isn’t the only debris on the road to progress, not the only political grouping supported by, and giving support to, the billionaire class, but he knows from his own experience that defeating the right is an absolutely necessary task on our way towards securing substantive political, economic, and, not least, social equality.

His candidacy then isn’t a story of socialism, but a tale of taking down the right wing, challenging the billionaire class, making a passionate case for justice and equality, and appealing to ordinary people to become the authors of their own democracy and lives. But in doing this, Sanders is giving the socialist brand a new legitimacy in the minds of tens of millions of Americans and thus making an inestimable contribution to a socialist future.

Luckily, most people on the left appreciate this. They understand that it can only help the process of socialist transformation as he argues for radical anti-corporate reforms and asks the American people to join him in reclaiming their democracy and economy.

Which brings me to my final point. If there is a rift between Bernie and the left it pivots around his assertion that Hillary, who is now embracing many of his campaign themes, isn’t an enemy, but an ally when it comes to overriding imperative of defeating the Republican right and reigning in some of the worst excesses of corporate practices. Everyone has to make up his or her mind on this matter, but my hope is that the left will sooner rather than later take its lead from Bernie.

This article was reposted from Sam Webb’s official blog page.

Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP


CONTRIBUTOR

Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time socialist and activist living in New York. He served as the national chairperson of the Communist Party from 2000 to 2014. Previously, he was the state organizer of the Communist Party in Michigan. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine. He blogs at SamWebb.org.

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