In Vermont, everybody knows that I am a socialist and that many people in our movement, not all, are socialists. And as often as not—and this is an interesting point that is the honest-to-God truth—what people will say is, “I don’t really know what socialism is, but if you’re not a Democrat or a Republican, you’re OK with me.”
– Bernie Sanders (1989)
I frankly admit that I have extraordinarily little feeling for, or interest in, what is usually termed ‘the final goal of socialism’. This goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me, the movement is everything.
– Eduard Bernstein (1898)
Bernie Sanders has run a remarkable campaign, exceeding all but the most pie-in-the-sky expectations. The ‘democratic socialist’ independent was almost universally thought to be an electoral non-entity outside progressive Vermont, and even many of his most fervent supporters were probably just hoping to express their discontent in an institutionally visible fashion. Very few can say they expected to see Bernie Sanders polling ahead of Hillary Clinton at any point in the campaign, that he could do so with an average campaign contribution of about $27. A socialist actually gave Hillary Rodham Clinton a run for her money? What is going on?
But the very forces he is campaigning against guarantee he will not win the Democratic nomination, for many of the reasons he has identified, and quite a few he has not: the superdelegate system and even outright electoral fraud are the tip of the iceberg. Even if he somehow did become the nominee and President, his naysayers have a point: how would he be able to sustainably shove progressive legislation through a House or Senate packed with Republicans and Democrats? Sanders did not get this far by shooting for the most radical proposals, and is very unlikely to pull a ‘Manchurian Candidate’ in our favor with a flurry of socialist executive orders.
Even so, the dominance of the billionaires will not end with an anticapitalist Emancipation Proclamation. When one takes a close look at that quintessential liberatory moment in the history of the United States—the abolition of slavery, the revolutionary assertion of black humanity—even a white supremacist, moderate Republican like Abraham Lincoln had to concede that the corrupting political power of the slaveholding class could not be destroyed without a war for abolition. For President Lincoln, the liberation of the black ‘race’ was a happy byproduct of preserving the Union, a goal in service of which he would have maintained slavery where it existed against his own moral compass:
If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
He did have the strong conviction for which he and the Union were prepared to fight—that the United States could not tolerate the spread of slavery to non-slave states or new territories. Perhaps most revealing, he believed that emancipation should be followed by ‘colonization’—the voluntary emigration of the American black population to Africa or even to Latin America—but was dissuaded by policy advisors, circumstances, and the unenthusiastic response from American blacks. This sounds like an altogether different person than ‘The Great Emancipator’ Americans have been taught to admire, less like “the single-minded son of the working class, [ ] lead[ing] his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world” and more like “preeminently the white man’s president”:
He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government. The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration. Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow-citizens, a preeminence in this worship at once full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his stepchildren; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity.
Compare him to the radicals and abolitionists who had advocated emancipation all along, they who successfully agitated the Civil War into a war to end slavery. While a President Lincoln may well be necessary for this kind of change, he is surely not sufficient. Without the radical vision and courage embodied in Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Wendell Phillips, Sojourner Truth, and William Lloyd Garrison, abolition would have remained an idle fantasy. They held to their values until history bowed, until the federal government of the United States granted black slaves—human beings legally considered little more than half-persons—the dignity of liberating themselves by bayonet. John Brown was hanged as an abolitionist terrorist in 1859 after attempting to lead a slave revolt at Harper’s Ferry, but just a few years later the Union would arm blacks in the South to the tune of “John Brown’s Body”:
Ye soldiers of Freedom, then strike, while strike ye may,
The death blow of oppression in a better time and way,
For the dawn of old John Brown has brightened into day,
And his soul is marching on.
If you have any say in how you will be remembered, what would you like the eyes of history to see? Who would you want to be in the story of human freedom, if you find yourself a part of such a meaningful process? Would you be a mild pragmatist who may be conditionally persuaded to the cause of liberty, or a militant proponent of the broadest possible human emancipation?
Who do you want to be?
Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word. (2014)
Sanders’ politics are attractive because they are closer to our politics than any other candidate. Perhaps in our system beggars can’t be choosers, but socialism is all about beggars becoming choosers: despite that Bernie is by far preferable to Clinton or Trump, your political imagination and principles do not have to be limited to those heads on the screen this election season.
Foundational political commitments can help ground us as the changing political tides make mincemeat of the values and convictions those around us supposedly have. A critique of Sanders from within the socialist tradition can strengthen the growing left tendency around his campaign, and can help us learn to use elected officials for our goals instead of the traditional vice versa. What does socialism mean to Bernie Sanders?
Socialism has a lot of different messages to different people. I think the issue of socialist ideology and what that meant or means is not terribly important. I think the positive of it is that it indicates to people that I am not a conventional politician. If they are not happy with the status quo, then that is a positive thing. The negative of it obviously is that there are people who equate it with totalitarianism and the Soviet Union. (1989)
The word ‘socialism’ experienced something of a counterintuitive revival during the debates surrounding the Affordable Care Act: Republicans applied the label to Obama’s healthcare plan to make it sound un-American and unacceptable, this despite the fact it featured a regulated insurance market and ended up with no public Medicare-for-All option. Those disappointed by the inadequate liberalism of the Obama administration and the incoherence of the Occupy movement seem to be gravitating towards the word in ways unimaginable during the Cold War.
But this strange re-emergence of ‘socialism’ leads us to ask exactly what we mean by the infamous term—certainly we cannot let the Republicans define it for us, since they are only interested in the word insofar as it bears a stigma. The vision Bernie Sanders has laid out over the decades is the starting point for many of us, since he is by far the most visible figure in American political life bold enough to explicitly stand for anything called ‘socialism’. It may, then, come as a surprise that Sanders too once feared the connotations of ‘socialism’ and therefore recoiled from calling himself a ‘socialist’:
I myself don’t use the word socialism because people have been brainwashed into thinking socialism automatically means slave-labor camps, dictatorship and lack of freedom of speech. (1976)
I’ve stayed away from calling myself a socialist because I did not want to spend half my life explaining that I did not believe in the Soviet Union or in concentration camps. (1981)
As the 80s wore on and the Soviet Union crumbled, Sanders came to embrace the label to refer to his progressive package of social reforms, but continued to make a sharp distinction between his vision and the USSR:
Yes, it is true that a result of the tremendous political ignorance in this country created by the schools and the media, there are many people who do not know the difference between ‘socialism’ and ‘communism.’ Yes, on more than one occasion, I have been told to “go back to Russia.” But, if we maintain a strong position on civil liberties, express our continued opposition to authoritarianism and the concept of the one-party state, I am confident that the vast majority of the people will understand that there is nothing incompatible between socialism and democracy. (1989)
Twenty years ago, when people here thought about socialism they were thinking about the Soviet Union, about Albania. Now they think about Scandinavia. In Vermont people understand I’m talking about democratic socialism. (2006)
Classical definitions of ‘socialism’ centered around democratic control of the means of production: productive property like tools and machinery, and natural property like land and water. What ‘democratic’ means, however, is a question deep at the heart of socialism: neither using the existing capitalist state nor building a new revolutionary state have resulted in anything resembling the classical vision of socialist freedom. Sanders has echoed this embattled legacy in some of his statements: socialism is a system “where human beings can own the means of production and work together rather than having to work as semi-slaves to other people who can hire and fire” (1988), yet it “doesn’t mean state ownership of everything, by any means” (1990). “I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own means of production” (2015).
So what else could it mean?
For me, what democratic socialism is about is to maintain the strong entrepreneurial spirit that we have in this country to continue to produce wealth, but to make certain that the wealth is much more equitably distributed than is currently the case. (2005)
In terms of socialism, …I think it means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have health care; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt… I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means. (2006)
Sanders’ idea of socialism does not sound very different than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proposed Second Bill of Rights, or the Keynesian liberal vision behind the Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society reforms: a regulated market economy based on profit-driven production, nationalization of certain essential services to convert them from consumer goods to public rights, retaining not only small but large private holdings in means of production.
It means creating a government that represents all of us, not just the wealthiest people in this country. I will remind the American people that there are socialist programs out there that are some of the most popular programs in America… When you go to your public library, when you call your Fire Department or the Police Department, what do you think you’re calling? These are socialist institutions. (2015)
This definition has some limits, and often ends in the claim that anything a government does while presiding over a capitalist economy is ‘socialist’. This leads many socialists to accept border enforcement, prisons, the police, and the military as socialist programs. This should give pause to those who see socialism as a means towards preventing future military adventures, to those who believe that Black Lives Matter in the face of police repression and mass incarceration, to those who see socialism as international human freedom instead of strengthening invisible national walls to keep out immigrants. Despite Bernie’s disassociation from the USSR and its satellites, it appears that an enormous military machine, police state, and bloody borders are still part of ‘democratic socialism’.
Bernie may indeed be the only candidate running with even half-reasonable positions on these issues, but perhaps this says more about the American political spectrum than anything praiseworthy about his politics. How does one respond when the only ‘socialist’ candidate says open borders is “a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States” that “would make everybody in America poorer[, ] doing away with the concept of a nation state”?
A traditional socialist answer might resemble the following:
The workers have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.
National differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.
The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster. United action, of the leading civilised countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.
In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another will also be put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.
This is by no means an unproblematic description of capitalism in our time, when it was written, or since it was written. Nonetheless, the vision of a global movement of the proletariat—one that does not hold tight to national borders and economic isolation but seeks to break them down in the name of humanity—is still the indispensable compass for socialist thought and politics. Its weary needle points north still: towards the only future worth inhabiting, worth leaving to those who follow. The soul of socialism dies when we lose this fundamental direction.
Socialism in One Century
I am absolutely convinced that these experiments can only have and will have the consequence of discrediting socialism for the next hundred years.
– Max Weber
The disgruntled American socialist may find a friend in this time-worn compass, but they will be just as horrified to hear it called ‘Marxism’. This revulsion can no longer be simply chalked up to ‘false consciousness’, dismissed out of hand as latent McCarthyism, or otherwise reduced to an ideological problem. The new generation of socialists has never taken twentieth century ‘communism’ seriously as a liberatory alternative to capitalism: our historical advantage allows us to comprehensively trace its tragic path through brutal famine, democidal purges, and—most spitefully of all—capitalism. The ideology formed to justify the Soviet Union and its derivatives, dubbed ‘Marxism-Leninism’ by its proponents and ‘Stalinism’ by detractors, was the dominant form of twentieth century Marxism in its many incarnations. Where Stalinism has not collapsed, it cynically calls some of the most brutal forms of capitalist extraction ‘communist’ and its one-party state governments ‘democratic’.
But Leninism was not the only form of Marxism in the world: its second-most popular form, reformist social democracy or simply ‘reformism’, dominated Marxist thought in the western democracies from which socialism was classically thought to spring. Many democratic socialists today unknowingly advocate positions pioneered by German socialist Eduard Bernstein, who significantly ‘revised’ Marxism based on his own comprehensive research and faith in the ability for liberal democracy to progressively implement socialism. As executor of Friedrich Engels’ literary estate, he waited for the elder communist to pass before challenging Socialist Party of Germany (SPD) orthodoxy from its right flank:
I am fully conscious that it differs in several important points from the ideas to be found in the theory of Karl Marx and Engels – men whose writings have exercised the greatest influence on my socialist line of thought, and one of whom—Engels—honored me with his personal friendship not only till his death but who showed beyond the grave, in his testamentary arrangements, a proof of his confidence in me.
…I have now a controversy with socialists who, like me, have sprung from the Marx-Engels school; and I am obliged, if I am to maintain my opinions, to show them the points where the Marx-Engels theory appears to me especially mistaken or to be self-contradictory. …That which concerns me, that which forms the chief aim of this work, is, by opposing what is left of the utopian mode of thought in the socialist theory, to strengthen equally the realistic and the idealistic element in the socialist movement.
So far, so good. Marxism—conceived as the ‘science of socialism’ or ‘scientific socialism’—must be inherently predisposed to revision if it is to retain any intellectual credibility. Indeed, a refusal to accept any revision to Marxism based on changing conditions would render the entire school of thought a quaint religious tradition from more hopeful times.
However, to reduce the ‘revisionism’ debate to fanatics shielding an outdated dogma from the blows of reason would do history—and ourselves—a great disservice. The SPD fell from grace in the eyes of many socialists when reformists led the charge to fund German military adventures in World War I, with socialist parties throughout Europe following suit by voting to fund their respective ruling classes. To his credit Bernstein opposed the war, but his loyalty to the bourgeois republic gave him little leg to stand on when opposing open patriotism in the SPD. A politics with constitutional and electoral horizons is more consistent with loyalty to the nation than the transcendence of national borders. While support for WWI plagued all parts of the socialist movement, reformists in the space opened up to Bernstein’s right were most able to capitalize on pro-war sentiment.
Rosa Luxemburg, three times a minority as a Jewish-Polish woman in Germany, rose to international prominence by issuing the definitive Marxist statement regarding the war from prison:
This war’s most important lesson for the policy of the proletariat is the unassailable fact that it cannot parrot the slogan Victory or Defeat, not in Germany or in France, not in England or in Russia. Only from the standpoint of imperialism does this slogan have any real content. For every Great Power it is identical to the question of gain or loss of political standing, of annexations, colonies, and military predominance. From the standpoint of class for the European proletariat as a whole the victory and defeat of any of the warring camps is equally disastrous.
It is war as such, no matter how it ends militarily, that signifies the greatest defeat for Europe’s proletariat. It is only the overcoming of war and the speediest possible enforcement of peace by the international militancy of the proletariat that can bring victory to the workers’ cause. …Proletarian policy knows no retreat; it can only struggle forward. It must always go beyond the existing and the newly created. In this sense alone, it is legitimate for the proletariat to confront both camps of imperialists in the world war with a policy of its own.
…But to push ahead to the victory of socialism we need a strong, activist, educated proletariat, and masses whose power lies in intellectual culture as well as numbers. These masses are being decimated by the world war. …The fruits of decades of sacrifice and the efforts of generations are destroyed in a few weeks. The key troops of the international proletariat are torn up by the roots.
…This blood-letting threatens to bleed the European workers’ movement to death. Another such world war and the outlook for socialism will be buried beneath the rubble heaped up by imperialist barbarism. …This is an assault, not on the bourgeois culture of the past, but on the socialist culture of the future, a lethal blow against that force which carries the future of humanity within itself and which alone can bear the precious treasures of the past into a better society. Here capitalism lays bear its death’s head; here it betrays the fact that its historical rationale is used up; its continued domination is no longer reconcilable to the progress of humanity.
The world war today is demonstrably not only murder on a grand scale; it is also suicide of the working classes of Europe. The soldiers of socialism, the proletarians of England, France, Germany, Russia, and Belgium have for months been killing one another at the behest of capital. They are driving the cold steel of murder into each other’s hearts. Locked in the embrace of death, they tumble into a common grave.
A centrist position to preserve socialist unity became untenable and the entire socialist movement tore itself in half. Reformists threw themselves into the trenches. Those disgusted with so-called ‘Socialist’ nationalists betraying the international proletariat found new hopes in the victory of Russian revolutionary socialists over the tsar. As the war dragged on and the body counts climbed, a mass strike wave erupted throughout Europe that forced an end to World War I, and the SPD’s militarist gamble had the short-term benefit of making them the legitimate ‘party of order’ in post-war Germany. SPD leader Friedrich Ebert became the first elected President in German history.
The movement against the war and disgust with the SPD led to the 1919 Sparticist uprising, an attempted German Revolution in solidarity with Russia by the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). President Ebert ordered the Freikorps ex-military militia squads to destroy the revolution. After attempting to prevent the revolt, KPD leaders Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht—a former SPD parliament member and second generation socialist—joined their comrades. What followed had truly historic consequences: the Freikorps captured and murdered Luxemburg and Liebknecht.
The resulting blood feud between the SPD and the KPD opened the door for a new political force in Germany—one with the goal of destroying Marxism once and for all—and so began the reign of terror on the left wing by the German military establishment that would culminate in the rise of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. The Nazis followed the SPD’s example in using the Freikorps to dismember the Leninist KPD and dissident communist groups in its orbit. The SPD’s gamble definitively backfired as its traitorous loyalty to the German nation on the battlefield and in office proved insufficient to stop the Nazi terror from devouring them too. A prediction by the martyred Luxemburg, although playing out under inverted circumstances to those she expected, became quite prescient:
The war means ruin for all the belligerents, although more so for the defeated. On the day after the concluding of peace, preparations for a new world war will be begun under the leadership of England in order to throw off the yoke of Prusso-German militarism burdening Europe and the Near East. A German victory would be only a prelude to a soon-to-follow second world war; and this would be the signal for a new, feverish arms race as well as the unleashing of the blackest reaction in all countries, but first and foremost in Germany itself.
In the murderous game of nationalism, the house always wins.
Reaction—the bloody obliteration of revolutionary hopes—was by no means limited to Germany. In addition to paving the way for the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, German socialism’s self-destruction also had grave implications for the young revolutionary Russian state. By Marxian assumptions, the massive productive capacity of capitalism is one of the most fundamental preconditions for the possibility of socialism. Politically, this meant either Marxists knowingly allowing the ravages of capitalism to uproot and annihilate communal peasant life—as the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party thought necessary for socialism—or the Bolshevik faction’s hope that revolutions in Europe could deliver on Marx & Engels’ prophecy in a late Russian edition of the Manifesto:
And now Russia! During the Revolution of 1848-9, not only the European princes, but the European bourgeois as well, found their only salvation from the proletariat just beginning to awaken in Russian intervention. The Tsar was proclaimed the chief of European reaction. …Russia forms the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe.
The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants.
…If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.
Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin knew all too well what the defeat of German communism spelled for Russia: “At all events, under all conceivable circumstances, if the German revolution does not come, we are doomed.” There would be no union of post-capitalist productive capacity with a system of common property in the Soviet Union. There could be no socialism in Russia.
The overwhelming practical value of this history is demonstrated by the tragedies of World War I, the crushed German revolution, and the starved Russian revolution: nationalist strategies of all kinds are incompatible with socialism. Proletarians in each state have to make common cause with the oppressed in neighboring states, across continents, and ultimately around the world, in addition to participating in national institutions. Without full-capacity cooperation between high and low-income countries, a first-rate socialist economy capable of supporting billions of people is a fantasy. The resulting forms of socialism could not survive the century: reformists who endorsed welfare state capitalism were dragged under with the stagflation crises of the 1970s, and Leninist states either simply collapsed or adopted capitalist economics without liberalizing their political institutions in the 1990s. The very logic of socialism is intrinsically antagonistic to the nation-state.
Workers and Proletarians
Contemporary nationalism often goes hand-in-hand with a sense that only those that work and their families deserve to eat, and the utility of ‘working’ identity in the United States has always been limited for those with the goal of transcending capitalism. The unwillingness for white American workers to affiliate with those indigenous to the continent, enslaved or free blacks, or immigrant laborers has long prefigured the grim resurgence of nativism and nationalism throughout Europe. The specter of the free-riding other—a racialized non-citizen—is no new invention, yet it appears everywhere that capital flows in the twenty-first century.
‘American worker’ rhetoric deployed against migrant proletarians at a Tea Party rally
But what class were Marxian socialists supposed to represent, anyway? Was it the working class, or the proletariat? This is not a trick question.
Marxian class analysis doesn’t operate in the way Americans traditionally think about class: in grades of income, on a ‘lower-middle-upper’ scale. Occupy’s ‘1%’ and Sanders’ ‘billionaire class’ are variations on this deployment of class as income brackets. Instead, Marxists think about classes as describing relationships between people and various forms of property, and how most forms of property tend to give most people the short end of the stick. The infamous class enemy in capitalism is the ‘bourgeoisie’—those who profit from productive, mercantile, or financial capital—and the ‘big bourgeoisie’ in particular.
Classically, Marxists are to be devoted to empowering the ‘proletariat’: those with no productive or natural property and only their ability to work to sell, dependent on market relations within or outside the formal economy to survive. Their economic and political needs are the starting point for a democracy that does not facilitate domination by the bourgeoisie, settlers, whites, men, etc. over the oppressed, exploited, and abandoned. Yet all proletarian political revolutionary strategies must include political alliances with low-income small proprietors of some kind. The economic dependence of both groups on the market give them some political overlap, and this common struggle forged a common term to cement their strategic alliance: the ‘working class’ coalition.
While ‘proletariat’ and ‘working class’ were never interchangeable, the historical situation around this strategy appears to have made it obsolete. As capitalists have mechanized and relocated over the years, less and less of the proletariat in high-income countries even have the dubious privilege of being exploited through wage labor. Without work, it’s hard to feel like a worker: when automated machines or brutally exploited workers in low-income countries manufacture all the means of production and commodities in your world, a traditional ‘workerist’ feeling of ownership over production loses its empirical basis. One waits in vain for the long-term unemployed to assert themselves as workers, or for labor bureaucracies to start organizing the unemployed.
One can admit that the induced amnesia of Americans towards their local labor, socialist, and other radical history would have been partially mitigated had some kind of labor or socialist party survived the history of violent state repression and leftist political capitulation. Yet it is undeniable that in the contemporary class landscape, the celebration of the proletarian-as-worker that once pointed towards universal emancipation now seems only capable of bolstering a reactionary critique of the welfare state. The effects of bourgeois social parasitism are passed off as the consequences of proletarian consumption of redistributive aid, an ideological meme easily adaptable to racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and generally misanthropic ends: anyone administered rations to ease their exclusion from direct market relations should be robbed of their rations, and if they cannot find ‘legitimate’ work they deserve to starve. All the while bourgeois economists seem quite convinced that a bit of unemployment is ‘natural’: about 4.5–6% of those included in the official rate, to be exact.
This is not to deny that an axiomatic commitment to destroy racism did not permeate the Marxian left in the United States: over 150 years ago, Marxists brought to American shores a more rigorous notion of human equality that translated into the causes of abolition, reconstruction, self-determination, and integration. About a decade before Joseph Weydemeyer became a lieutenant colonel in the Union Army in 1861, he coined the infamous term for what a middle-aged Marx felt was his real contribution: the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ theory of communist politics. But as the North returned to business as usual after the Civil War and abandoned its support of Reconstruction, the Southern ruling classes engineered a segregationist and anticommunist ideology to justify drowning a generation of antislavery heroes in blood. Black Marxist W.E.B. Dubois considered the Reconstruction government to have been a dictatorship of the proletariat, and analyzed its liquidation in similar terms to how Marx documented the slaughter of the 1871 Paris Commune.
So began a campaign to ensure there would be no more Colonel Weydemeyers to guide the proletariat in the United States to victory: repressive waves of anti-sedition, McCarthyism, surveillance and counterintelligence programs guaranteed that socialists would remain on the outside of American politics in the twentieth century. Many otherwise committed socialists developed either a tolerance for living in bad faith or a full blown case of Stockholm syndrome, fashioning a kind of monastic virtue out of their political exclusion and eventual irrelevance. Meanwhile: nationalist, racist, and otherwise chauvinistic forms of ideology dominated working class politics as a result.
When the proportion of those traditionally considered ‘productive’ American workers to the general proletarian population shrank dramatically due to economic restructuring in the mid-70s, a ‘worker’ identity was available to an even smaller slice of the proletariat; they chose to strike out on their own over banding together even in the limited sense of ‘golden age’ nationalist unionism. The supply for labor had far exceeded the demand to such an extent that unions could no longer wield credible bargaining power, with well-funded neoliberal think tanks disseminating all the rhetoric and policies needed to demolish labor’s institutional gains.
While the potential for people to identify, communicate and cooperate beyond borders seems ever more immanent in the technological landscape of the 21st century, every socialist with internet access has lost sleep pouring over pages detailing the structural undermining and subsequent atomization of what once was called the ‘working class’. Capitalist societies developed extraordinary global capacities for the purposes of deepening capitalist relations and establishing dominance in the global hierarchy of states (often in service of the former imperative), and so follows a cosmopolitan flavor of cultural dominance: by those with the capital to explore the planet, of those confined to parochial proletarian worlds. Nationalism—alongside finer and broader levels of regionalism—has retained a curious role in channeling class resentment, not least in the United States: the archetypical antagonism between nationalist ‘working class’ reactionaries and globalist ‘middle class’ progressives illuminates another thorough ideological defeat.
All this is to say that it is unlikely we will see a return to ‘worker’ rhetoric and identity as the unique political basis of a socialist project. Yet this does not imply we should jettison class politics in favor of more socially immanent identities, nor a plea to categorically reject labor politics: if capitalism can repurpose workerism—not only the original identity politic standpoint, but one created specifically to fight capitalism—I have great faith in the Hillary Clintons, Miley Cyruses, Jay-Zs, Dan Savages, Beyoncés, and Caitlin Jenners of the world to undermine the revolutionary potential of all manner of embattled identities.
We cannot ignore sections of the proletariat because they identify one way or the other; class politics must be fought on all fronts within the many discrete identities taken up by the oppressed, exploited, and abandoned. The proletarian condition prefigures socialism only in the sense that those without property—the majority of global humanity—have material interest in distribution, reduction, and eventual elimination of socially necessary labor; collective ownership of natural and productive property; rationally coordinated allocation of its products; and universalist political institutions. Overcoming the proletarian condition requires a dimension of class consciousness, but not an abandonment of other collective attachments; if it was ever advisable to do class politics without engaging non-class identities, it is simply not possible to do so in the present.
Marxism for Bernouts
If you have made it this far, perhaps you too are mourning the defeat of the Sanders campaign. Perhaps you knew from the start that the Democratic Party would never buck a former First Lady for a nominal socialist, but found yourself fighting off pangs of hope when errors in reasonable analytical projections appeared; or maybe you were one of the faithful few that could ignore the overwhelming odds stacked against his nomination, vindicated over the past couple of months but now frantically tweeting your cognitive dissonance.
The defeat of the Sanders campaign can be one of two things for American socialists: a disappointing ending, or a critical beginning. Bernie Sanders has reintroduced to the United States the moral force of an egalitarian future that takes the name ‘socialism’, but it is up to us to decide what socialism means. When he says “I don’t believe in some foreign ‘ism’, but I believe deeply in American idealism”, his vision of a better world does not sound drastically different than President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration speech: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
Sanders touts as his primary political influence Eugene Victor Debs, an ex-Democrat unionist that ran for President on the Socialist Party ticket five times in the early twentieth century; he ran his final campaign in 1920 from a prison cell, garnering around 915,000 votes despite being convicted for publicly opposing World War I. Debs was a different breed of politician than any we know today:
No, I am not opposed to all war, nor am I opposed to fighting under all circumstances, and any declaration to the contrary would disqualify me as a revolutionist. When I say I am opposed to war I mean ruling class war, for the ruling class is the only class that makes war. It matters not to me whether this war be offensive or defensive, or what other lying excuse may be invented for it, I am opposed to it, and I would be shot for treason before I would enter such a war.
If I were in Congress I would be shot before I would vote a dollar for such a war. Capitalist wars for capitalist conquest and capitalist plunder must be fought by the capitalists themselves so far as I am concerned, and upon that question there can be no misunderstanding as to my position.
I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; and I am a citizen of the world. I would not violate my principles for God, much less for a crazy kaiser, a savage czar, a degenerate king, or a band of pot-bellied parasites.
But while, I have not a drop of blood to shed for the oppressors of the working class and the robbers of the poor, the thieves and looters, the brigands and murderers, whose debauched misrule is the crime of the ages, I have a heart-full to shed for their victims when it shall be needed in the war for their liberation.
I am not a capitalist soldier; I am a proletarian revolutionist. I do not belong to the regular army of the plutocracy, but to the irregular army of the people. I refuse to obey any command to fight from, the ruling class, but I will not wait to be commanded to fight for the working class.
I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul, and that is the world-wide war of the social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make it necessary, even to the barricades.
I’d like to propose an amendment to Bill’s formula: There is nothing wrong with socialism that cannot be cured by what is right with socialism. Millions of revolutionaries more principled and courageous than we have tried and failed to implement socialism, committed scholars have sifted through the genius and shortcomings of every attempt; how self-defeating would it be to never explore the accumulated perspective of a century-and-a-half of socialist politics?
More immediately, how are socialists supposed to shove their values aside and vote for Hillary Clinton after the obviously corrupt election process that shut down the Sanders campaign? The #BernieOrBust tendency is knocking at the door of the most important principle of Marxian socialist politics: proletarian political organization must stand apart from bourgeois interests of all kinds. Those disappointed with Sanders’ decision to run as a Democrat despite his refusal to join the party beforehand will see their worst fears confirmed if Bernie simply stands aside and allows the Democratic Party to feed on the independent momentum for which he has campaigned his whole life. But those aware of this historical tendency are already approaching the question of how to channel the Sanders campaign into a new political agency outside of the Democrats and Republicans.
Many of those demoralized by both nationalist reformism and the miserable reality of Marxist-Leninist states simply abandoned Marxism. Yet many did not: some rejected Marxian state and party formations altogether, some attempted to adapt Leninist strategy to the Western world without pretending Marxist-Leninist states were socialist, and some attempted to reconcile the dismal history of both twentieth century ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ with Marx & Engels’ democratic communist politics.
Perhaps the strongest starting point for the inevitable #Bust is a book that falls into the last category, combing the ghosts of socialisms past for political guidance today: Revolutionary Strategy by Mike Macnair, an Oxford legal historian and gay liberation movement veteran. Macnair presents an analytically and historically grounded Marxist framework to examine reformism’s incorporation into capitalism and the military industrial complex; Leninism’s bureaucratic authoritarianism, economic mismanagement and spectacular collapse; and how to organize revolutionary realist socialist politics beyond the twentieth century.
This campaign really is not about Bernie Sanders.
It’s about transforming America.
A free copy of Revolutionary Strategy can be found here.
Articles by Macnair can be found here.
An annotated version of this article can be found here.