For the most part the far left—those whose identities are wrapped up in being socialist, anarchist and other shades of left activists—do not understand the real significance of the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Clinging to their ideologies and principles, they see plenty of reasons why Sanders is insufficient: he doesn’t call for workers owning the means of production; he doesn’t advocate national control of key industries; he will centralize the state with big government. (For radicals, Hillary Clinton is not even worth the argument—she’s so corrupt, hawkish and capitalist.) I’ve read and heard predictable refrains from radicals about why they are not excited about the political revolution that Bernie Sanders proposes: “I don’t want another white man in office”; “I don’t want to vote for another boss of the American Empire”; “He’s justifying the system”; “He’s sold himself to the Democratic Party, which is a bourgeois party”; “He will co-opt our social movement”; “He won’t be able to do that much inside the system”; “Democratic socialists repressed the left after the First World War”; Then, of course, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about Bernie upholding white supremacy by not supporting reparations.
Sure. Fine. He’s not as radical as the radical activists. Coates is largely correct in his logic. But they are missing the point. Let me point out some of what these folks neglect: Bernie Sanders is publicizing two main messages: 1) the economy is rigged and 2) our politics is corrupted. Millions of people have heard that message more clearly from him than they ever would have heard before. These millions who are feeling the Bern are not just critiquing Republicans, which Hillary does so well, but are widely critical of the Democratic Party, the corporate media and union bosses.
At the last Democratic Party debate, the moderator asked Sanders about his book, where he wrote that Democrats and Republicans were not that different from one another. Leftists have been trying to spread these kinds of messages for decades. Bernie’s supporters became more fired up over the hostile attack by the DNC after the data breach than anything else. Only Clinton raised money for the party, Sanders raised none. Bernie Sanders is spreading these messages on national television and reaching tens of millions of people—breaking a series of corporate taboos. He is raising expectations.
What the radicals don’t get is that Bernie is opening a crack in an iron wall. This opening—glasnost is the Russian translation—can lead in many different directions. Ultimately, his policy proposals are not half as important as the shift in social power that his election will effect. His reforms will encourage social movements that are, ultimately, beyond his control. Indeed, when you look at all revolutionary change in retrospect, it accelerated in the face of reforms, openings and half-revolutions that preceded any radical break. In the spring of 1789 French elites held the Third Estate months before the storming of the Bastille prison. The Haitian slave insurrection took place when the establishment was in civil strife over reforms. In March 1917, the creation of parliamentary democracy preceded the Bolshevik seizure of power.
For more recent examples, just think about how anti-segregation protests in the South in the mid-1950s widened into national protests against patriarchal-capitalist-heteronormative-white supremacy only a decade later. There is a direct line between Rosa Parks’ success and the prominence of Malcolm X and Angela Davis. The historical examples are manifold. Remember a generation ago the glasnost in Russia led to mass protests and the fall of the USSR. In South Africa, the apartheid reformer de Klerk negotiated an end to that regime. Gorbachev and de Klerk had only intended to reform "the system." Perhaps it’s worth recalling that President Lincoln was insistent in his inaugural address that he would not free any slaves in slave states. His election accelerated a struggle that was already in existence. Lincoln’s election tilted the balance of power toward emancipation when half a million slaves ran to the Union army’s lines, and the war became about slavery and not just preserving the Union.
The idea of an opening against corporate hegemony could also be called a "national reckoning." Coates has stated that reparations are principally a means toward such a national reckoning, even more so than a distinct proposal of financial transfer to descendants of slaves. Bernie Sanders would be the only president to have said that the country was founded on racist principles. On national TV he explains how a policy of covert and overt regime change have been detrimental to this country and the world. Radicals miss the fact that Bernie represents exactly this national reckoning even if they don’t agree with his every stance.
When talking about the right wing, radicals like to stress how the likes of Donald Trump give the green light to street violence against black people, Mexicans and Muslims. Yet, they don’t ask how left politicians may give the green light to social movements they are sympathetic to. For instance, Bernie supported DREAMers on hunger strike. Bernie became critical of Rahm Emmanuel echoing Black Lives Matter demands. Bernie lent public support to CUNY workers’ rights before they voted to strike. Sanders’ political revolution would require mass mobilization of exactly these constituencies: African-American, Latinos and workers. Sanders calls for street mobilization as part of the political revolution.
Radicals argue that the masses get co-opted by elections. This just doesn’t line up with lived experience. They point to the enthusiasm around Obama’s 2008 victory as proof that politicians simply manipulate voters. That may be true, but it is untenable to say that social movements were co-opted by Obama. Since Obama’s election this country has witnessed a steep rise in social movements. Disappointment after Obama raised expectations may have partly fueled such a movement to the streets. Occupy Wall Street was unprecedented. The growth of Black Lives Matter and the DREAMers movement developed principally in the years since Obama came to office. The idea of electoral co-option sounds theoretically plausible, but it is simply a theory without standing in our reality. One socialist website even makes it seem that Bernie will undermine the revolutionary working class’s aspirations for syndicalist control of the economy. This kind of thinking is the result of a mind-body split. These radicals are clearly not experiencing the embodied world around them. Instead they seem to be using deductive logic based on theory, not sound history. It is worth noting that 1936 and 1946, in the midst of the New Deal—which much of Bernie’s platform alludes to—had some of the largest mobilizations of strikes in American history. People were not co-opted by the New Deal; they were emboldened by it.
Lastly, the radicals’ critique that Bernie won’t change much as president and that it’s the whole system that needs to change only echoes Bernie’s own comments. He explicitly critiques Obama for demobilizing the campaign after his election. Bernie repeats in speech after speech that no president is powerful enough to take on Wall Street alone. Radicals and social movements would do better to think of Bernie as an ally. In a privileged position, indeed the most powerful position in the world, Bernie Sanders would work for the causes dear to the left. He would not be in the trenches, but he would at least create the sorely needed space activists need to create the change they yearn for. Arguing that he can’t change the system alone not only repeats the candidate himself, but it also assumes (as the co-option argument does) that the populace cannot understand the political dynamics.
As a historian, I can’t help also reminding folks of the Democratic primary in 1944, when party bosses picked Harry Truman over the widely popular, desegregationist, left-leaning Henry Wallace. Subsequently, Truman dropped the atomic bomb, led the country into the Cold War, and drastically escalated the conflict in Korea. Wallace was part of the radical wing of the New Dealers, and his most famous speech rejected the idea of an "American Century" and advocated the "Century of the Common Man." In retrospect, activists would smartly place their efforts in supporting Henry Wallace for a few months on the campaign trail.
Without Sanders’ political revolution, we can rest assured that we’ll have another four years of cycles of repression, resistance and left critiques of politicians who they now say make no difference anyway. It’s hardly deniable that a few months of activism devoted to Bernie could enable more change than years of screaming at the corporate iron wall.