Despite his loss, Bernie Sanders' campaign proved that organizing around class interests works

The pundits have it wrong: Bernie Sanders' loss speaks to the continued relevance of socialist ideas

Published April 16, 2020 7:03PM (EDT)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talks during a campaign rally in Detroit, Friday, March 6, 2020.  (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talks during a campaign rally in Detroit, Friday, March 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

It never gets old. Every time the political establishment succeeds in suppressing a challenge to the status quo, liberal pundits rush to their desks to cluck their tongues. Once again, they proclaim, class struggle has been exposed as a delusion. Marxism, an outmoded 19th century doctrine, has been "refuted" once again.

In a recent, much-read Vox article titled "Why Bernie Sanders Failed," Zack Beauchamp joins this tired chorus. "The Sanders campaign and his supporters bet on a theory of class politics that turned out to be wrong," he says. Sanders failed because his strategy "rested in part on a Marx-inflected theory of how people think about politics," Beauchamp says. He continues:

A basic premise of Marxist political strategy is that people should behave according to their material self-interest as assessed by Marxists — which is to say, their class interests. Proposing policies like Medicare-for-all, which would plausibly alleviate the suffering of the working class, should be effective at galvanizing working-class voters to turn out for left parties.

The problems with Beauchamp's argument are myriad. Perhaps most crucially, he seems to have no idea what Marxism is. Nor did his editors.

One can't blame Vox entirely. Throughout the history of capitalism, Marxism has been subjected to caricatures and distortions. But not only are the basic premises of Marxism quite different from what Beauchamp suggests, it turns out that the fortunes of the Bernie Sanders campaign confirm them quite definitively.

First and foremost, liberals are constantly worried about people "voting against their interests." When they talk about this, they're already invoking social class as a political problem. When Vox says "class conflict doesn't dominate the American political scene," this is totally at odds with the way we actually talk about American politics. According to a certain liberal common sense, working class voters are continually supporting Republicans, against "interests" which haven't yet been defined.

This is why Marxism is relevant; it isn't a reduction of politics to "material interests," it's a critique of the whole category of "interests." Now, it's true that in the most famous excerpts of Marx there are various references to the antagonistic interests of the two social classes that Marx theorized: the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production, and the proletariat, who have to work for them. It's also true that these excerpts, leading up to "The Communist Manifesto," seem to depict an inevitable process. In this version, the forces of history lead inexorably to workers realizing their objective, economic interests and engaging in revolution to achieve them. These get unified into a kind of textbook interpretation, which has been promulgated by academics as well as by the official socialist movement, which says that workers will ultimately necessarily engage in class struggle when they inevitably realize their objective interests.

But this interpretation of Marx — whether it's being advanced by critics of Marxism or Marxists themselves (what used to be called "vulgar Marxists") — doesn't accurately convey the insights of Marx's analysis. Specifically, there are two problems.

First, it's one thing to say that the two classes of capitalist societies have antagonistic interests. This is just a description of a social fact: bosses and workers can't both get what they want. Bosses want to get richer, and workers want to live better lives; but as Marx described at length, the bosses only get richer by exploiting workers.

This is all pretty straightforward. But there's big leap from describing these antagonistic interests — a relationship between classes — to saying that people are fundamentally motivated by economic interests, and that this determines their political behavior. As it happens, that's not a Marxist argument; it's actually the argument of apologists for capitalism like Adam Smith, who were trying to argue that acting in one's self-interest wasn't immoral, but was actually the basis for greater prosperity.

The idea that human action is motivated by interests is a core aspect of capitalist ideology, and it's become such a powerful component of our common sense that sometimes Marxists try to cram their own perspective into it, by arguing that self-interest really has to include sympathy for others. But Smith already argued that sympathy was fundamental to human behavior in his "Theory of Moral Sentiments," which preceded the more famous "Wealth of Nations." The Marxist theory is totally different.

In fact, in some of his earliest writings, Marx had already totally rejected the idea that politics could be equated with individual self-interest — even if these interests were seen as the basis for democratic rights, which were Marx's primary concern as a young radical struggling for democracy against the absolutist state in 19th-century Europe. From his vantage point, the problem was not that capitalism violated people's interests, but rather that it separated people from each other and from the community, and furthermore, separated them from their very own powers, which then towered over them in the form of the state.

Marx thought that real emancipation would mean reabsorbing these separated powers into the human community — not realizing some abstract "interest." In fact, the reason Marx came to think that the working class would have to lead the revolution for real emancipation wasn't because it represented objective, "material" interests, but because it had no real "interests" within the existing society.

When the bourgeoisie waged a revolution against feudalism — as in the American and French revolutions — it had represented its own limited, partial class interests as the interests of the whole society. But the proletariat, because it was so totally excluded from the structure of society, could only have an "interest" in universal emancipation, in overcoming the domination of everyone. In other words, the program of the proletariat was the abolition of "interests."

Second, Marx quickly had to abandon the view that revolutions would happen automatically when workers became aware of their exploitation, because right after the appearance of "The Communist Manifesto," the revolutions of 1848 demonstrated that revolutions are extremely complicated processes. There are many different class "interests" at play – the interests of aristocrats, landlords, financiers, industrialists, the middle classes, the working class, peasants, and so on. In revolutions, different fractions of society form alliances and make different kinds of demands that hold those alliances together. So these "interests" aren't just reflections of people's objective positions in society, but are constituted by political processes.

Ultimately people might "vote against their interests," the phenomenon which causes so much liberal handwringing today. Marx reflected on this in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848, noting that there was no clear alignment of interests among the various class fractions. The counterrevolutionary stability of French society ended up being secured by a despotic buffoon — this might sound familiar — who relied on conservative ideology and the support of the peasantry for his election and subsequent coup.

This meant, for Marx, that he had to shift from just looking at the economic determination of historical events to thinking about the state. The capitalist state had the function of maintaining class rule; in a fundamentally unequal society, there has to be some way of pacifying conflict and ensuring stability. But the way it did this was often contradictory, with different factions in the state advancing different strategies for maintaining power.

The fact that the capitalist state is structured around maintaining the power of the ruling class — and this can constantly be verified empirically when you look at the policies politicians advocate, their sources of funding, the social networks they're embedded in, and so on —  means that socialists trying to enter into the state have the deck stacked against them. They're trying to shift political power towards the working class within a structure that is specifically designed to exclude the working class from governance. The response from the Democratic Party to the unexpected (albeit short-lived) success of the Sanders campaign showed precisely how this works: politicians will form alliances and use the party apparatus against the opposition.

The easiest way to maintain ruling-class power is through violence, and capitalist states have not been shy about doing so in the past. But in democratic societies, this can't be the standard operating procedure. Violence is still used in the form of the police and the military, but the state has to gain popular consent, and the Marxist term for how this happens is "ideology."

Liberal pundits tend to talk about ideology in terms of opinions people hold, which are supposed to determine how they vote. This is quite distinct from the Marxist theory of ideology, which is not about consciously held opinions. It's clear that there's frequently a disconnect between people's opinions on policy issues and their voting behavior. Furthermore, people's opinions change all the time; I have personally changed my opinion on several matters over the past few weeks.

So ideology is better understood as the way we form our ideas as a result of everyday habits that we're trained in by our existing institutions. Voting is such a habit. If I spend my entire adult life choosing between two political parties which each represent the same position on certain fundamental questions about the nature of our society – for example, whether healthcare is a human right – that habit generates certain patterns of thought which I may not even consciously consider. Presented with the choice between a candidate who advocates policies that the whole political system says is impossible, and a candidate who is backed by the whole party apparatus, I may make a choice that is in my "interests" as a Democratic voter rather than as a worker.

Someone should tell Vox's editors that recognizing the role of ideology doesn't mean thinking that people are dupes. It means understanding why people consent to a system which systematically exploits them.

That's why the theory of ideology isn't the same as talking about "false consciousness" (a phrase Marx never used), which we could contrast to an authentic, transparent, "class consciousness." Our "consciousness" is determined by all kinds of different, frequently contradictory aspects of our environments and personal histories. If it's going to work, ideology has to be articulated in a way that speaks to our experiences, in languages that really represent the different facets of our lives. Emphasizing class doesn't mean ignoring those languages — in fact, these "cultural" factors are part of the way we understand and experience class.

So a serious Marxist theory and strategy understands that changing people's opinions will mean actually engaging with the language and symbolism of ideology. To a significant extent, the Sanders campaign did do that. It won large support among immigrants not only by appealing to their "material" interests but also by emphasizing Bernie's immigrant background, doing extensive outreach in Spanish, demonstrating Bernie's alliances with young politicians who are also immigrants, and so on. These representational strategies are extremely important, and socialists today ignore them at their peril.

But there is no incompatibility between engaging in an "ideological struggle" and advocating for policies that concern people's material conditions. Or, better, there is only an incompatibility if socialists fail to put together a strategy that can unite them.

As the great Marxist theorist Stuart Hall wrote: "material interests, on their own, have no necessary class belongingness. They influence us. But they are not escalators which automatically deliver people to their appointed destinations, 'in place,' within the political ideological spectrum."

After all, our "material interests" can be pursued in many different ways. Vox says that "Identity, in all its complexities, appears to be far more powerful in shaping voters' behaviors than the material interests given pride of place in Marxist theory." But this just kicks the explanatory can down the road. A white male voter might think it is in his "interest" to preserve race and gender inequalities for the privileges that they confer. But a socialist organization which operates on the principles of solidarity can argue to this voter that it would better serve his interest to give up these privileges in favor of a unified movement against economic inequality. These interests are constituted politically, by organizations which can change the everyday habits that generate ideology. When we act differently and relate to each other in different ways, we can have new ideas. People don't "vote against their interests"; they vote according to what they understand their interests to be within the limitations that exist. If there are organized practices which can change these limitations, those interests can also change.

So Vox is right to say that people aren't ultimately motivated by economic interests. But this isn't an argument against Marxism. The most important and fundamental component of Marxism isn't the idea that people are motivated by economic interests — which, as I've pointed out, is a residue of capitalist ideology that Marxism criticized. The core of Marxism is the idea of emancipation. Marxism became a powerful force in history because it aimed at universal emancipation, and this project was taken up by revolutionary movements around the world. People risked their lives for emancipation, and in many cases died for it. What this history shows us is that emancipation goes definitively beyond interests. Every time someone goes on strike or stands up to police violence, they are acting against their immediate interests — they could be fired or killed. But when people do risk poverty and death for a political cause, they demonstrate that we human animals are capable of much more than pursuing our immediate interests. We can act in the name of the principle that whatever happens to us individually, no one should go hungry.

Today, every nurse who goes into a hospital to treat patients suffering from COVID-19, knowing that they put their own lives at risk, demonstrates that human beings are capable of acting in the name of solidarity rather than immediate self-interest. And they are challenging us to take that solidarity to its conclusion. In a moving reflection on being a nurse during the pandemic, Emily Pierskalla of the Minnesota Nurses Association writes that if she dies while caring for the sick, "I want you to politicize my death. I want you to use it as fuel to demand change in this industry, to demand protection, living wages, and safe working conditions for nurses and ALL workers."

Capitalist society is built to undermine this solidarity in the name of self-interest, and even if previous socialist strategies have failed, the task remains the same. That's the real lesson of Marxism, and it has never ceased to be relevant.

By Asad Haider

Asad Haider is the author of "Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump" (Verso, 2018), and an editor of Viewpoint Magazine.

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