Bernie’s recent speech democratic socialism was an important moment. At least if we have the will and the boldness to act on it. Bernie announced a vision, more radical and liberatory than any other Democratic candidate. But his speech was important not just because of the goals he put forward. Bernie Sanders’ candidacy is significant not only because of what he proposes but because of the vitalized socialist movement that is being built and defining itself as a force both within his movement and that can stand independent of a particular electoral campaign. Which is why it is crucial that we find our own grammar and strategy for what are doing now, and how that provides us with the opportunity to build the future we want.
While the base is inspired and passionate, there are some worries, and criticisms, of the nature of socialism (or even whether it is socialism at all) that Bernie is advocating. Is Bernie some New Deal Democrat, who calls himself a democratic socialist out of nostalgia? I think this charge is off base. Bernie’s speech weaved together a familiar American tradition, that of the New Deal, with another tradition, no less American, but less familiar than the tradition of FDR.
The opening of Bernie’s speech was imbued with a dialectical analysis and a compelling class consciousness. There are in Bernie’s rhetoric two forms that are possible, oligarchy/authoritarianism or democratic socialism. This distinction between this and Luxemburg’s “socialism or barbarism,” is minuscule. Each new historical movement is free to find its own political grammar, to bring new life and familiarity to concepts from past struggles. Bernie put two classes into opposition, the billionaires and the working class. The billionaire class, the Walton’s, Bezos, and the three families who “own more wealth than the bottom 50%.” This excess of power and wealth was pitted against the working people of this country, who are fighting for economic, gender, and racial justice. Latent in the working class is the possibility of justice and freedom, the potential of a new world.
From there he brought forward an American tradition that arose in response to the crisis of capitalism. Bernie’s praise of the New Deal was not some eulogy of a historical tradition that shows the end of what should be acceptable politically. Bernie Sanders called the New Deal an “unfinished project.” And the principles that will complete that project are socialist principles. This synthesis, regardless of the historical accuracy surrounding the New Deal, invites working Americans into the socialist tradition by making the socialist tradition a recognizable historical process. But unlike the New Deal, which was top-down, Bernie Sanders explicitly calls on the working class to be the makers of change. This puts him in a category, unlike any other Democratic candidate.
And lastly, Bernie wrestled the term freedom away from the Right. What freedom do they provide? Freedom to toil, to sell your labor to the boss, in return for a meager payment which is then ‘freely’ given to the landlord, to the insurance company, to the debt collector. Freedom, indeed. Bernie expands the narrow notion of American freedom, into socialist freedom. The compulsion of daily life, which is created by an enforced scarcity which keeps us all in desperation while the rich live in luxury off our labor. Ending this exploitation is key to the realization of freedom, and Bernie again threads this throughout his speech.
Two critical tasks of the Left today are one to support the continued opening of the political space and political imagination inspired by Bernie’s run, while at the same time encouraging the continued radicalization of working people. It is perfectly, well and good to say, I support Bernie Sanders, it is even better to say I support Bernie Sanders for what he wants to achieve with the presidency and what we can do following those gains. To build up the organizations and associations that have developed, to sharpen our critique of capitalism and our strategy to abolish it. The last few years have shown this is no time for cowardice but of boldness and possibility.