Bernie and the Long Game: What Should the Left Make of Sanders?

by Sophia Burns

Originally published on The North Star; reproduced in its entirety here.

The mainstream’s left wing enables us in spite of itself.

As Bernie Sanders commands more support from Democratic primary voters, the US far left has debated the relative wisdom of supporting – materially or morally – his presidential campaign. Greatly simplified, the dispute fundamentally asks: will endorsing Sanders help us organize within a working class that still admires Steve Jobs over Karl Marx, or will the senator just “sheepdog” us straight into the Democratic Party?

So, across social media and socialist periodicals, the anti-Sanders crowd denounces his politics as insufficiently progressive (in particular, his consistent support for the occupation of Palestine and anti-immigrant protectionism). Meanwhile, his promoters defend his left-wing (or at least left-wing enough) bona fides. In the end, though, should we really center our analysis on the hypothetical policy decisions of a future President Sanders? Assuming that our main concern should be what policies Sanders would push were he to win artificially limits our analysis, and – most importantly – prevents us from recognizing what Sanders’ campaign really offers. Anticapitalism means long-game politics; our ambitions stretch far past the next election cycle. And whether Bernie Sanders wins or not – whether or not he is, authentically, “one of us” – we would be fools to ignore that his is the most concretely useful national campaign in decades.

When a mainstream politician uses language like “political revolution against the billionaire class,” does it matter that he ignores that terminology’s proper, technical Marxian sense? When people unconnected with our activist subcultures hear “socialism” used as anything other than Republican histrionics, who benefits – the Democrat that Sanders will likely end up endorsing, or the organizers who get red-baited out of nearly every political project of any practical use? Unless we choose to restrict our view of Sanders’ campaign’s repercussions to a simple “yes” or “no” on election day, none of us has the size or influence to turn up their nose at the potential offered by Sanders’ rehabilitation of open talk about class. Sanders (and those like him) make liberals of working-class centrists, and social democrats of working-class liberals.

So, should far-leftists start doorbelling for Bernie?

If we take seriously the opportunity Sanders is helping create, then no, we absolutely should not support him. We should not campaign for him, and we should not endorse him – not even “critically.”

Socialists ought to know better than to hang our revolutionary dreams on the “acceptable” candidate’s win in that perpetually-extra-crucial next election (let alone someone even acknowledged by his Marxist supporters as, at best, just shy of the Green Party). If we believed that, we would be Democrats. While Sanders’ exciting rhetoric and beautiful promises are already creating new left-liberals, it will not be his triumphs that make them communists. Sanders offers “political revolution,” but his approach and his party (to say nothing of his ideology) mean he will never deliver. And what happens when “Scandinavian-style socialism” fails his current enthusiasts? Some percentage of them will move left, but that will not be towards Sanders’ incrementalist admirers. Instead, they will turn towards the leftists who never lined up under Bernie’s banner, who put their energy, time, and money into direct action, into militant unionism and community self-defense, and into building political-economic-social infrastructure directly under oppressed and working-class communities’ control.

And, ultimately, I would personally rather see Sanders win than not; Democrats in office have a much harder time tricking people than Democrats in opposition. While by now the zeitgeist feels like ours, we should not forget how the antiwar movement collapsed after Obama took office, while recent mass movements (from Occupy to deportation resistance to Black Lives Matter) have all refused to become constituencies of the ruling Democratic Party. How many of the newly-politicized radicals of the last half decade would have ended up Democrats under a Republican government? But, in the end, the Sanders run’s biggest impact will not be the identity of the next president (whoever that turns out to be). No matter who wins, eighteen months from now, masses of Bernie diehards will feel not only disappointed, but betrayed – and if we maintain our focus on ground-level radicalism and avoid wasting time cheering for Sanders, then we can be there to recruit them.

Sanders is opening up space. But when he fails, whether we fill it will be up to us.

(Lily A. Connor is the Coordinating Secretary of the Communist Labor Party, a post-sectarian revolutionary group active in the US. Additionally, she organizes with RATPAC, the Revolutionary Alliance of Trans People Against Capitalism.)