What’s Left of Bernie’s Revolution?

Robert Delaunay, Circular Forms, 1930
Robert Delau­nay, Cir­cu­lar Forms, 1930

On the tor­rid morn­ing of Tues­day, July 26th, a hand­ful of Bernie Sanders del­e­gates addressed a Bernie or Bust ral­ly at Thomas Paine Plaza, near Philadelphia’s City Hall. A del­e­gate from North Dako­ta described the harass­ment he had faced at the hands of the DNC and the Clin­ton cam­paign. Anoth­er, Ali Kur­naz from Flori­da, recount­ed how Clin­ton del­e­gates tried to stop him from unfurl­ing a Pales­tin­ian flag, shout­ing that he did not “belong there.” Fed up, a young female del­e­gate from Geor­gia announced that she intend­ed to walk out that night and encour­aged the angry, sun­burned crowd to protest out­side the Con­ven­tion in sol­i­dar­i­ty. “We are fight­ing on the inside,” she explained, “you are fight­ing on the out­side.”

Unlike many oth­er Con­ven­tion protests, where the demon­stra­tors on the out­side see every­one inside as an ene­my, this time demon­stra­tors and del­e­gates felt they were strug­gling side by side. The Geor­gia del­e­gate was joined by at least a hun­dred oth­ers, and accord­ing to some reports, as many as 700. Out­side the Wells Far­go Cen­ter, thou­sands of pro­test­ers gath­ered to sup­port their com­rades on the inside. Despite the media’s offi­cial take, the walk­out was not some spon­ta­neous action fueled by blind rage and bad sports­man­ship, but a coor­di­nat­ed, pre­med­i­tat­ed polit­i­cal action, the cul­mi­na­tion of dis­tinct but unit­ed orga­niz­ing ini­tia­tives.

But the walk­out was not the only time the two sides came togeth­er. Through­out the week, demon­stra­tors con­gre­gat­ed at Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty events and spaces, gath­ered in sup­port out­side the Wells Far­go Cen­ter, and cheered on – or in some cas­es pres­sured – their del­e­gates at the Con­ven­tion Cen­ter. Mean­while, Sanders del­e­gates attend­ed ral­lies, joined march­es, and spoke at the night­ly meet­ings of the Social­ist Con­ver­gence. Togeth­er, both sides hatched plans, dis­cussed future cam­paigns, talked about how to stop the TPP and what to do about the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Con­nec­tions were made, along with com­mit­ments to con­tin­ue fight­ing well past the elec­tion into the com­ing years. As one del­e­gate put it: “we are not going to let this die.”

Most of the pro­test­ers shared this sen­ti­ment, which came as some­thing of a sur­prise to me. When the pri­maires first began, many, includ­ing myself, assumed that while the Sanders cam­paign would cer­tain­ly change the polit­i­cal ter­rain, it would like­ly end in com­plete demo­bi­liza­tion, much like pre­ced­ing insur­gent runs. The nat­ur­al lim­its of such cam­paigns – the insti­tu­tion­al­ized dis­tance between the bal­lot box and the streets, the per­verse log­ic of less­er-evil­ism, and the recu­per­a­tive pow­er of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty – make any effort to trans­late an elec­toral bid into a last­ing social move­ment extra­or­di­nar­i­ly dif­fi­cult, no mat­ter the bound­less enthu­si­asm of some Sanders vot­ers. Indeed, despite their hatred of the “estab­lish­ment,” pas­sion for a “pro­gres­sive” agen­da, and vol­un­tarist élan, it seemed that most Sanders sup­port­ers tend­ed to be ide­o­log­i­cal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly amor­phous, rel­a­tive­ly unor­ga­nized, and new to strug­gles and social move­ments, which made dis­per­sal after the elec­tion quite like­ly. For some on the far left, this appar­ent shape­less­ness, ide­o­log­i­cal flex­i­bil­i­ty, and osten­si­ble inter­est in things like “social­ism,” meant that per­haps some of these sup­port­ers could pass over to rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics over the course of the pri­ma­ry process, pro­vid­ed of course that the far left could pro­vide a mean­ing­ful and effec­tive alter­na­tive. The task, which I was admit­ted­ly open to, was to quick­ly engage with as many Sanders vot­ers as pos­si­ble before the ener­gy van­ished and most of them returned back into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, where they would be inevitably reunit­ed in their sep­a­ra­tion.

This assump­tion has turned out to be incor­rect. Since the pri­maries began I’ve been con­duct­ing an ongo­ing inquiry into what some have called “the Bernie phe­nom­e­non.” Dur­ing the pri­maries, I decid­ed to can­vass for the cam­paign as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­duct inquiries. I talked to peo­ple from all over the city, from work­ing-class dis­tricts to Yup­pie strong­holds, black neigh­bor­hoods to immi­grant hubs, to check the polit­i­cal tem­per­a­ture, learn what Philadel­phi­ans want­ed out of this elec­tion, and to see what they thought about Bernie’s pro­gram. At the DNC, I raced around the city, from Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty to the Wells Far­go Cen­ter, from eight in the morn­ing to mid­night observ­ing the actions, join­ing the march­es, talk­ing to orga­niz­ers, and above all inter­view­ing pro­test­ers from all over the coun­try. Since then, I’ve been sup­ple­ment­ing inter­views by review­ing exit polls, vot­er data, and sta­tis­ti­cal stud­ies.

There’s still a great deal of work to be done, and the sit­u­a­tion is still chang­ing, but reflect­ing fur­ther on my research, I now hypoth­e­size that against all expec­ta­tions the cam­paign has left some­thing behind: a small but sig­nif­i­cant core of Bernie vot­ers have formed them­selves into a dis­tinct polit­i­cal cur­rent. Armed with a rel­a­tive­ly coher­ent pro­gram, strat­e­gy, and set of demands – many of which ulti­mate­ly derive from Occu­py, but were artic­u­lat­ed by the Sanders cam­paign dur­ing the pri­maries – this cur­rent has a sense of what it wants, and what it does not. And while its favorite watch­words, such as “polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion” or “social­ism,” may sug­gest oth­er­wise, this cur­rent wants nei­ther rev­o­lu­tion nor social­ism – at least not in any rec­og­niz­able, his­tor­i­cal sense of the term – but social democ­ra­cy.

This ongo­ing strug­gle for social democ­ra­cy, how­ev­er, is vis­i­bly chang­ing the polit­i­cal land­scape in the Unit­ed States. Even though it finds itself orga­ni­za­tion­al­ly scat­tered, with its path con­sis­tent­ly obstruct­ed, it seems like­ly that this cur­rent will nev­er­the­less con­tin­ue to play a role in this country’s polit­i­cal future. Giv­en their rel­a­tive coheren­cy, they will nei­ther van­ish any time soon, nor rapid­ly pass over to the far left, which should force the rev­o­lu­tion­ary left to fun­da­men­tal­ly rethink how it should or should not relate to the new social democ­rats.

But before one can for­mu­late any­thing like an appro­pri­ate and effec­tive strat­e­gy, it’s essen­tial to devel­op a con­crete analy­sis of this con­crete sit­u­a­tion. What is this cur­rent, how did it come into exis­tence, what is its com­po­si­tion, what does it want, where may it be head­ing, and what does this mean for the rev­o­lu­tion­ary left?


Occu­py, now five years old, marked an impor­tant turn­ing point in the Unit­ed States. It helped uni­fy pre­ex­ist­ing strug­gles. It sig­naled the return of mass nation­wide protest, which result­ed, among oth­er things, in at least 7,000 arrests nation­wide. It raised a set of last­ing demands that would shape the polit­i­cal ter­rain in this coun­try. Indeed, Occu­py drew nation­al atten­tion to income inequal­i­ty, call­ing for debt for­give­ness, get­ting mon­ey out of pol­i­tics, mak­ing the wealthy pay, and root­ing out cor­rup­tion. Of course, Occu­py was a high­ly far­ragi­nous move­ment, chang­ing shape accord­ing to each local­i­ty, always bal­anc­ing con­tra­dic­to­ry impuls­es, and strug­gling to hold togeth­er dis­tinct social forces, often with very dif­fer­ent class char­ac­ters.

As I’ve sug­gest­ed else­where, one of the lim­i­ta­tions of Occu­py was that we were nev­er able to for­mu­late a his­tor­i­cal­ly ade­quate solu­tion to the ques­tion of artic­u­la­tion. By this, I meant the chal­lenge of pulling togeth­er dis­tinct social forces through polit­i­cal con­struc­tion and strug­gle into a last­ing uni­ty. The most illus­tra­tive his­tor­i­cal exam­ple of this process prob­a­bly remains the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion: recall how its suc­cess depend­ed on artic­u­lat­ing the diverse inter­ests of the var­i­ous sec­tors of the work­ing class, dif­fer­ent lay­ers of the peas­antry, and the sol­diers, a uni­ty cap­tured in the slo­gan “Peace, Bread, Land.”

Artic­u­la­tion was and con­tin­ues to be a prob­lem pre­cise­ly because indi­vid­u­als do not com­pose them­selves into social forces spon­ta­neous­ly, and social forces do not unite auto­mat­i­cal­ly. Social forces must active­ly orga­nize their own uni­ty, which is why the del­i­cate but ardu­ous process of artic­u­la­tion always involves strat­e­gy.

Artic­u­la­tion gen­er­al­ly requires the for­mu­la­tion of some kind of pro­gram, whether a pithy slo­gan or a com­plex plat­form. Pro­grams work to nego­ti­ate and dis­till the dis­tinct, and some­times con­tra­dic­to­ry, demands, inter­ests, and aims of the var­i­ous con­stituent social forces. But they also serve as impor­tant guides in col­lec­tive strug­gles. Despite their aura of chis­eled final­i­ty, which has undoubt­ed­ly con­tributed to their bad rep­u­ta­tion, pro­grams are in fact rad­i­cal­ly open forms that dis­play their con­tin­gent ori­gins and inescapable lim­i­ta­tions, con­tra­dic­tions, and lacu­nae. “Pro­grammes are not man­i­festos,” as Gilles Deleuze puts it, “but means of pro­vid­ing ref­er­ence points for an exper­i­ment which exceeds our capac­i­ties to fore­see.”

Artic­u­la­tion also involves some kind of orga­ni­za­tion, though the forms this may take are always his­tor­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic. Orga­ni­za­tions cen­tral­ize a num­ber of impor­tant func­tions. They are the spaces with­in which com­pro­mis­es are forged. They allow for con­ti­nu­ity between waves of strug­gle, keep­ing social forces togeth­er dur­ing ebbs. And they also help repro­duce that uni­ty in the face of inevitable assaults from the dom­i­nant social forces and the state. As Nicos Poulantzas showed, one of the cap­i­tal­ist state’s pri­ma­ry func­tions is to “orga­nize-uni­fy the pow­er bloc by per­ma­nent­ly dis­or­ga­niz­ing-divid­ing the dom­i­nat­ed class­es, polar­iz­ing them towards the pow­er bloc, and short-cir­cuit­ing their own polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions.” The state, in oth­er words, dis­ar­tic­u­lates the hor­i­zon­tal uni­ty between dom­i­nat­ed social forces, decom­pos­es those social forces into a sea of sep­a­rat­ed indi­vid­u­als, and then recon­sti­tutes those indi­vid­u­als into the spu­ri­ous uni­ty of the homoge­nous “peo­ple-nation.” Giv­en the con­scious strat­e­gy of the rul­ing bloc to pre­vent oppo­si­tion­al social forces from unit­ing, and this gen­er­al ten­den­cy towards dis­ag­gre­ga­tion, it would be absurd to expect these forces to spon­ta­neous­ly come togeth­er and stay unit­ed. This means that uni­ty must not only be con­struct­ed, it has to be con­tin­u­ous­ly repro­duced, defend­ed.

Of course, artic­u­la­tion hap­pens in dif­fer­ent ways, result­ing in dif­fer­ent forms of uni­ty. Although some are very well known, such as cur­rents, move­ments, and blocs, there may be oth­er, far more his­tor­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate forms of artic­u­la­tion that we have not yet dis­cov­ered. Dif­fer­ent forms of uni­ty pos­sess dif­fer­ent lev­els of strength: some are quite weak, while oth­ers are more durable. At one end of the spec­trum, we can speak of the cur­rent, a weak form of artic­u­la­tion that unites dif­fer­ent social forces around a com­mon pro­gram, but with min­i­mal orga­ni­za­tion­al cohe­sion and direc­tion. Blocs, on the oth­er hand, involve rel­a­tive sta­bil­i­ty, uni­ty of inter­ests, orga­ni­za­tion­al longevi­ty, a rich sub­cul­ture, strong ties to strug­gles, and a vast social and polit­i­cal infra­struc­ture that gen­er­ates new social rela­tions. How­ev­er, since forms of uni­ty are not sta­t­ic, one kind of artic­u­la­tion can trans­form into anoth­er, or into some­thing total­ly new.

To be sure, Occu­py did ini­ti­ate this process of artic­u­la­tion. It cre­at­ed a space where indi­vid­u­als and social forces could encounter one anoth­er, estab­lish­ing the nec­es­sary pre­con­di­tions for uni­ty. Occu­piers even went a step fur­ther to pro­duce that uni­ty, pri­mar­i­ly by pro­cess­ing a wide array of aspi­ra­tions, strug­gles, and social forces into a com­mon, uni­ver­sal­iz­able lan­guage of pop­ulism: “We are the 99%.” But this kind of dis­cur­sive uni­ty was not enough; it tried to pre­sup­pose at the lev­el of lan­guage that which had to be active­ly con­struct­ed through strug­gle. Cru­cial dif­fer­ences, in oth­er words, can­not be nego­ti­at­ed by sim­ply announc­ing that we are all the same; they have to be orga­nized into a func­tion­al uni­ty that does not erase but pre­serves het­ero­gene­ity, with­out suc­cumb­ing to indi­vid­u­al­ism.

This kind of dis­cur­sive uni­ty failed to ade­quate­ly respond to the press­ing chal­lenges raised by the par­tic­u­lar com­po­si­tion of the many social forces gath­ered at the encamp­ments. There were gen­uine ten­sions, for exam­ple, over the ways stu­dents and the home­less relat­ed to the occu­pied spaces. Young occu­piers some­times squared off against old­er activists shaped by very dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions, strug­gles, and expe­ri­ences. Many women con­front­ed cas­es of sex­u­al assault. Some peo­ple of col­or felt the encamp­ments lacked racial diver­si­ty and a rig­or­ous engage­ment with racism. As Ife Johari Uhu­ru, one of the ear­ly orga­niz­ers of Occu­py the Hood, explained,With­out every­body, it’s not a true rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the 99 per cent.”

When this kind of uni­ty ran up against its nat­ur­al lim­its, the prob­lem of artic­u­la­tion was dis­placed to the pure­ly tac­ti­cal lev­el: pro­tect­ing the encamp­ment from the state. Occu­piers thus end­ed up sub­sti­tut­ing the lev­el of tac­tics for all oth­er aspects of artic­u­la­tion. But artic­u­la­tion can nev­er be achieved on any one lev­el alone, and when the tac­tic of occu­pa­tion was force­ful­ly blocked by the state, it is lit­tle won­der the whole thing col­lapsed. The weak uni­ty it had achieved was com­pro­mised, send­ing dif­fer­ent strug­gles spi­ral­ing off in their own direc­tions.

But strug­gles and move­ments did not dis­si­pate after Occu­py. It had an effec­tive orga­ni­za­tion­al after­life, start­ing with local­ized ini­tia­tives like Occu­py Sandy or Oakland’s Anti-Repres­sion Com­mit­tee. But even more pow­er­ful­ly, Occu­py super­charged pre­ex­ist­ing strug­gles, while pro­pelling the for­ma­tion of oth­ers, pro­lif­er­at­ing cru­cial demands – such as rais­ing the min­i­mum wage to fif­teen dol­lars an hour, break­ing up the banks, get­ting mon­ey out of pol­i­tics, uni­ver­sal­iz­ing health care, or for­giv­ing stu­dent debt – through­out the coun­try, albeit in high­ly frag­men­tary ways. Despite their unde­ni­able inter­re­la­tion­ships, the ques­tion of artic­u­la­tion con­tin­ued to haunt us: how could we artic­u­late these dis­tinct demands, strug­gles, and social forces into a long term, antag­o­nis­tic uni­ty?

Feel the Bernstein

Then in late 2015, as if out of nowhere, a 74 year-old self-pro­claimed “demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist” pro­posed one pos­si­ble solu­tion: a new social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent. When Bernie Sanders stepped into this new con­junc­ture, he was ini­tial­ly ignored. But as the pri­ma­ry process pro­gressed, his social demo­c­ra­t­ic views act­ed as a pos­si­ble cen­ter of grav­i­ty. It’s now com­mon­place to com­ment on the irony of an old white man born on the first day of the Siege of Leningrad pulling togeth­er an alliance dom­i­nat­ed by a mul­tira­cial gen­er­a­tion of youth raised on the inter­net and the Iraq War. Per­haps it’s not so sur­pris­ing that the kind of vision and expe­ri­ence need­ed to artic­u­late a specif­i­cal­ly social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent in this coun­try would come from some­one whose polit­i­cal for­ma­tion pre­ced­ed the neolib­er­al onslaught that not only her­ald­ed a new rul­ing-class strat­e­gy, state con­fig­u­ra­tion, and regime of accu­mu­la­tion, but the anni­hi­la­tion of all alter­na­tives to the order of things. But why did Sanders, who has been say­ing the same thing for over three decades, all of a sud­den find a new audi­ence?

The short answer is that Sanders’s brand of social democ­ra­cy had strong elec­tive affini­ties with some of the aspi­ra­tions advanced by the recent cycle of strug­gles, above all those devel­oped dur­ing Occu­py. Sanders was an ear­ly, vocal sup­port­er of Occu­py. Trans­formed by these recent strug­gles, he strived to recode his long-held social demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics in the new idiom of Occu­py, suf­fus­ing his cam­paign with the lan­guage of the 99%. “There is some­thing pro­found­ly wrong,” he said while announc­ing his can­di­da­cy, “when the top one-tenth of 1 per­cent owns almost as much wealth as the bot­tom 90 per­cent and when 99 per­cent of all new income goes to the top 1 per­cent.” As a skilled politi­cian, Sanders not only trans­lat­ed these float­ing aspi­ra­tions into pithy slo­gans about the rigged econ­o­my, star­va­tion wages, a cor­rupt cam­paign finance sys­tem, and estab­lish­ment pol­i­tics; he began to orga­nize them into a pro­gram­mat­ic uni­ty, using his New Deal social demo­c­ra­t­ic vision as the ground. Through this pro­gram, Sanders start­ed to artic­u­late a set of diverse social forces into the nucle­us of a poten­tial social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent in the Unit­ed States.

Some on the rev­o­lu­tion­ary left have been dis­mayed by this turn of events, denounc­ing Sanders as a “sheep­dog” politi­cian who coopt­ed the rad­i­cal ener­gies that emerged after Occu­py. To be sure, this social demo­c­ra­t­ic solu­tion to the chal­lenge of artic­u­la­tion was far from inevitable. A num­ber of paths could have been tak­en, and many still remain open, espe­cial­ly since it remains to be seen if this par­tic­u­lar solu­tion will hold. But even if does, it will not pre­clude the for­mu­la­tion of oth­er, com­pet­ing solu­tions to the prob­lem of artic­u­la­tion, some of which may be fur­ther to the left. After all, social forces can artic­u­late into a num­ber of dis­tinct forms of uni­ty in a giv­en social for­ma­tion, some­times with over­lap­ping mem­bers. As we all know, the Sanders cam­paign did not artic­u­late all the oppo­si­tion­al social forces in this coun­try. Not only did many remain out­side the social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent, there were, and con­tin­ue to be, oth­er notable forms of uni­ty, such as Black Lives Mat­ter.

All that said, it’s delu­sion­al to assume that Sanders some­how manip­u­lat­ed mil­lions of peo­ple who were some­how already head­ing straight towards a more rev­o­lu­tion­ary form of uni­ty. Instead of auto­mat­i­cal­ly denounc­ing Sanders, we have to ask our­selves why Sanders’s par­tic­u­lar solu­tion was so much more suc­cess­ful than any­thing we’ve pro­posed thus far. Indeed, why did one of the strongest bids towards uni­ty and lead­er­ship in recent years come under the sign of social democ­ra­cy – and not, say, rev­o­lu­tion­ary anti-cap­i­tal­ism?

His sur­pris­ing suc­cess shows that the rev­o­lu­tion­ary left in this coun­try is still sim­ply far too inef­fec­tu­al – intel­lec­tu­al­ly, strate­gi­cal­ly, orga­ni­za­tion­al­ly – to pro­pose a viable solu­tion to the artic­u­la­tion prob­lem. This is not to say we should throw up our hands in defeat, only that we need to reflect more deeply about why we face such chal­lenges in artic­u­lat­ing our own rev­o­lu­tion­ary form of uni­ty. Bernie’s per­for­mance also indi­cates that at the moment, many of the oppo­si­tion­al social forces in play are far more recep­tive to social democ­ra­cy than rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ism. As we saw, the hard truth is that the polit­i­cal vision under­gird­ing many of these Occu­py-era demands was itself quite aligned with a con­ven­tion­al social demo­c­ra­t­ic stance, even if it hap­pened to be wrapped in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary cloak. After all, for many occu­piers, the prob­lem was pri­mar­i­ly that some wealthy indi­vid­u­als and big cor­po­ra­tions have not only gone too far, cre­at­ing mas­sive inequal­i­ty, but use cor­rupt politi­cians to force the state to pri­or­i­tize prof­its over peo­ple. Log­i­cal­ly, for them, the solu­tion is to get mon­ey out of pol­i­tics, reg­u­late and even pun­ish the bad sec­tors of cap­i­tal, and pass social leg­is­la­tion to make the gov­ern­ment work for the peo­ple. The sim­i­lar­i­ties between this per­spec­tive and Bernie’s pro­gram are unde­ni­able.

When we rec­og­nize this, it is obvi­ous that Sanders did not recu­per­ate oth­er­wise rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gles, sub­vert­ing their essen­tial­ly social­ist char­ac­ter in the process. Rather, he gave pos­i­tive expres­sion to the demands ani­mat­ing many of these social forces. He not only artic­u­lat­ed them with­in a coher­ent pro­gram; he pro­posed a con­crete plan of action to real­ize them. It’s there­fore unsur­pris­ing, for exam­ple, that so many for­mer occu­piers across the coun­try threw their weight behind the Sanders cam­paign, form­ing autonomous grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions as well as large nation­al ones such as Peo­ple for Bernie or The People’s Rev­o­lu­tion. The con­nec­tion between Occu­py and Sanders was per­haps most vis­i­ble in New York, where for­mer edi­tors of the Occu­pied Wall Street Jour­nal pro­duced The Bat­tle of New York broad­sheets, occu­piers orga­nized march­es for the Pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, and sup­port­ers returned to Zuc­cot­ti Park to phone bank for a pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee. Some, includ­ing a num­ber of occu­piers them­selves, rit­u­al­is­ti­cal­ly warned against coop­ta­tion, but many felt that Bernie was sim­ply car­ry­ing for­ward their torch. Indeed, last sum­mer 74% of respon­dents to an OWS Pres­i­den­tial Elec­tion Sur­vey said they would vote for Bernie. Although the image of Occu­piers who once denounced elec­tions now fill­ing the ranks of an elec­toral cam­paign may seem jar­ring, this kind of leap from an ultra left­ism that basi­cal­ly ignores the state beyond its most repres­sive aspects to a social demo­c­ra­t­ic reformism that treats the state as an instru­ment to be acquired is actu­al­ly quite log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal­ly very com­mon.

The nar­ra­tive of manip­u­la­tion becomes even more inad­e­quate when we recall that many activists – includ­ing those with deep ambiva­lences about his cam­paign – began to force their own polit­i­cal desires onto the Sanders cam­paign, which led Sanders to not only widen, but “update” his social demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics. This is pre­cise­ly why Sanders began to speak about the “bro­ken crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem,” call for “schools not pris­ons,” decry the police as an “occu­py­ing army,” hard­en his stance against Israel, and con­demn insti­tu­tion­al racism. The inter­ven­tion of activists also allowed Sanders to deep­en his campaign’s con­nec­tion to strug­gles out­side the elec­toral sphere. Whether one likes it or not, the artic­u­la­tion of an expand­ed social demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­gram for the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry was just as much, if not more, a prod­uct of activists in strug­gle as of Bernie Sanders.

Like Occu­py, Sanders’s ini­tial solu­tion to the artic­u­la­tion prob­lem was pri­mar­i­ly based in a sin­gle tac­tic, which car­ried some advan­tages and some dis­ad­van­tages. To begin with, the elec­toral cam­paign allowed Sanders to coun­ter­pose a com­mon goal to a com­mon ene­my. In this, the heat of the elec­toral strug­gle occa­sioned a kind of cease­fire between var­i­ous forces, allow­ing them to table their ide­o­log­i­cal, strate­gic, and orga­ni­za­tion­al dif­fer­ences in favor of unit­ing against what they saw as the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s neolib­er­al can­di­date, who now appeared poten­tial­ly vul­ner­a­ble. In addi­tion to bring­ing these forces togeth­er, the elec­toral cam­paign also fixed a rel­a­tive­ly mea­sur­able goal. Of course, Sanders repeat­ed­ly said this cam­paign was about more than just win­ning the elec­tion, but the tar­get gave his sup­port­ers some­thing to col­lec­tive­ly work towards as well as a way to mark incre­men­tal vic­to­ries and gauge suc­cess­es.

More impor­tant­ly, dur­ing the pri­ma­ry process mil­lions more were won over to this social demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­gram. Pres­sured by activists from below, Sanders helped ampli­fy many of the demands for­mu­lat­ed dur­ing and after Occu­py, pack­ag­ing them in a form more com­pre­hen­si­ble to mil­lions of Amer­i­cans who nev­er stepped foot in an encamp­ment, joined a pick­et line, or linked arms in a march. In this regard, he expand­ed the coali­tion of social forces back­ing the new social demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics.

Last­ly, the elec­toral cam­paign gave Sanders a nation­al stage to voice his pol­i­tics. In addi­tion to reach­ing more peo­ple, it allowed him to refine the pro­gram. Indeed, as the cam­paign pro­gressed, the sharp dif­fer­ences between Sanders and Hillary Clin­ton allowed mil­lions of Amer­i­cans to under­stand social democ­ra­cy as a dis­tinct kind of pol­i­tics. At the same time, many ceased to treat “lib­er­al” as a syn­onym for “pro­gres­sive” or “left,” but as its own dis­tinct and rival pol­i­tics. In ret­ro­spect, dis­tin­guish­ing “lib­er­al­ism” from social democ­ra­cy was prob­a­bly one of the most impor­tant devel­op­ments of the Sanders cam­paign, far more sig­nif­i­cant than the revival of the term “social­ism.”

Of course the elec­toral path car­ried tremen­dous risks. Spec­ta­cle eas­i­ly gives way to pas­siv­i­ty, vot­ing rep­re­sents only the weak­est form of uni­ty, and the elec­tion cycle’s spe­cif­ic log­ic and lifes­pan encour­ages demo­bi­liza­tion and demor­al­iza­tion. Fur­ther­more, the campaign’s desire to win would pre­dictably favor tra­di­tion­al cam­paign­ing over exper­i­ments with grass­roots orga­niz­ing, despite Bernie’s rhetoric of “polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion.” And at the end of the day, we all knew that Sanders would end up endors­ing Clin­ton when he lost. All this would make it extreme­ly dif­fi­cult for this form of uni­ty to out­live the elec­tion cycle.

The oth­er major prob­lem with elec­tions is that they nec­es­sar­i­ly fuse the pro­gram with the fig­ure. To be sure, in some respects this worked in Bernie’s favor: his per­ceived trust­wor­thi­ness lent legit­i­ma­cy to his larg­er pol­i­tics. For many Sanders sup­port­ers, Bernie per­son­i­fied social demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics: he was hon­est, ded­i­cat­ed to a vision, free of scan­dals, a for­mer activist, the son of immi­grants, a man of the peo­ple. When I can­vassed in Philadel­phia, I fre­quent­ly asked peo­ple why they planned to cast their vote for this man. While about half referred specif­i­cal­ly to the pro­gram, most also con­nect­ed this pro­gram to his per­son. “He means what he says” – unlike Hillary who, to their minds, seems to embody cor­rup­tion, scan­dals, theft, the estab­lish­ment, in short, every­thing they stand against.

But anchor­ing social demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics so firm­ly to Bernie Sanders risked reduc­ing those pol­i­tics to the for­tunes of a sin­gle fig­ure. Giv­en this fusion, there was an extreme­ly high risk that the social demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­gram would die with Bernie’s cam­paign. The Sanders cam­paign helped artic­u­late a social demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics, but if the par­ti­sans of social democ­ra­cy want­ed to push their strug­gle fur­ther, they had to move beyond the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, which meant, first and fore­most, break­ing with the man who helped that project cohere.

Beyond Bernie

On July 12, 2016, Bernie Sanders offi­cial­ly endorsed Hillary Clin­ton. Giv­en his ear­li­er threats of a con­test­ed con­ven­tion, some of his sup­port­ers were con­fused. Oth­ers felt betrayed. Most fig­ured it was inevitable. But some saw the endorse­ment as a tac­ti­cal maneu­ver, buy­ing time for some­thing big. To my sur­prise, at least a dozen Bernie sup­port­ers I met dur­ing the DNC in Philadel­phia even believed Bernie could still win the nom­i­na­tion. They felt that in descend­ing on the city in mass num­bers, mak­ing a show of force, they could flip the super-del­e­gates. They were in for dis­ap­point­ment. Bernie not only con­tin­ued to exhort his sup­port­ers to vote for Hillary, but effec­tive­ly moved to accept her nom­i­na­tion by accla­ma­tion, avert­ing the con­fronta­tion so many of his own del­e­gates on the con­ven­tion floor han­kered after. While some were no doubt crest­fall­en, tear­ing up dur­ing his con­ces­sion speech, most were irate. Inside the con­ven­tion, a con­tin­gent of Sanders del­e­gates booed their man. On the out­side, pressed up against the rusty met­al fences sep­a­rat­ing them from the Wells Far­go Cen­ter, thou­sands of pro­test­ers from all over the coun­try refused to heed Bernie’s injunc­tion to unite behind Hillary, chant­i­ng: “Hell no, DNC, we won’t vote for Hillary.”

While some felt ani­mos­i­ty towards Bernie him­self, most believed his defin­i­tive elec­toral defeat sim­ply meant that they had to con­tin­ue the “polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion” with­out him. A young woman lead­ing a Bernie or Bust ral­ly at Thomas Paine Plaza explained it this way: before the cam­paign she felt alone, but Bernie helped her find oth­ers, and for this she will for­ev­er be grate­ful for Bernie. Bernie’s con­ces­sion speech left her sad, she con­tin­ued, but the time had come to move past him, to take up the move­ment on our own, and that every­thing came down to us. Most of the demon­stra­tors shared this sen­ti­ment, want­i­ng to go “beyond Bernie” yet hold­ing no mal­ice towards Bernie Sanders the man. Indeed, even after Bernie’s rather pathet­ic attempt to trans­fer his plat­form to Hillary, pro­test­ers con­tin­ued to wave his signs, wear his shirts, and chant his name. One Sanders del­e­gate expressed the para­dox quite well, “I’m leav­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, but not aban­don­ing the val­ues that brought us togeth­er. I’m still Sanders.” But how can one leave the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and be “still Sanders” when Bernie Sanders him­self has instruct­ed his fol­low­ers to line up behind the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee? The appar­ent con­tra­dic­tion points to the most sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ments of the Con­ven­tion, the decou­pling of the pol­i­tics from the fig­ure. Dur­ing the DNC, the words “Bernie” or “Sanders”  began to tran­scend the actu­al 74 year-old-man, becom­ing a kind of gen­er­al­ized sym­bol for the strug­gle as a whole. Bernie is dead, long live Bernie.

But what exact­ly did they think they were car­ry­ing for­ward? As I spoke to demon­stra­tors, I noticed real con­fu­sion over ter­mi­nol­o­gy. Peo­ple var­i­ous­ly talked about the “polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion,” the “pro­gres­sive agen­da,” or the “plat­form of the 99%.” Some even called their project “social­ism.” Now, much has been made of the sur­pris­ing resur­gence of this term, but it’s clear that this does not mean what it once did. Social democ­ra­cy is not social­ism. The social demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­gram tak­en up by Bernie’s sup­port­ers is about fix­ing cap­i­tal­ism, not abol­ish­ing the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion; it’s about curb­ing the excess­es of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­i­cy, not end­ing impe­ri­al­ism; reduc­ing income inequal­i­ty, not abol­ish­ing the val­ue form; run­ning the state for the ben­e­fit of the peo­ple, not smash­ing it alto­geth­er. While it’s true that “social­ism” has always been a very ambigu­ous term, there was a time when it large­ly indi­cat­ed an aspi­ra­tion towards the lat­ter. But today, the immense major­i­ty of those who have adopt­ed the word are not think­ing about anti-cap­i­tal­ist rev­o­lu­tion. In fact, the word no longer has any clear ref­er­ent.

In some ways, we should be thank­ful. Unlike “com­mu­nism,” which, although much more pre­cise, still auto­mat­i­cal­ly evokes the gulags for the vast major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans, “social­ism” is no longer a “dirty word.” This means we can not only pop­u­lar­ize our pol­i­tics with­out fear, and with poten­tial­ly less mis­un­der­stand­ing, we can use the term’s inde­ter­mi­na­cy to rein­vent its mean­ing, over­com­ing many of the real lim­i­ta­tions of the social­ist pol­i­tics of the past. On the oth­er hand, the term risks being com­plete­ly evac­u­at­ed of mean­ing, becom­ing a sign of one’s dis­con­tent rather than a con­sis­tent pol­i­tics. I spoke to a young pro­test­er in Philly whose T-shirt cap­tured it per­fect­ly: a black and white image of Bernie’s face, draped with long, curly hair, capped with a beret and a star, in the style of Che Gue­vara. To be sure, con­flat­ing Bernie’s social­ism with Che’s, and oth­er oper­a­tions like this, may act as a kind of gate­way towards fur­ther rad­i­cal­iza­tion. I did find in con­ver­sa­tions with Bernie sup­port­ers that the Bernie phe­nom­e­non moti­vat­ed some of them to turn to the real his­to­ry of social­ism. But from what I can tell, only an extreme minor­i­ty of Bernie sup­port­ers are mov­ing from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to any kind of rev­o­lu­tion­ary anti-cap­i­tal­ism. A more like­ly result, there­fore, is the efface­ment of socialism’s spe­cif­ic his­to­ry or its reduc­tion to a syn­onym for social democ­ra­cy.

Before one of the march­es at the DNC, a con­tin­gent of social­ists hand­ed out about a hun­dred red flags to who­ev­er want­ed them, the aim being to increase the vis­i­bil­i­ty of social­ism with­in the march. I’m not sure what the orga­niz­ers thought, but it quick­ly became clear that red flags no longer had any fixed mean­ing for most marchers. One man, who some­how end­ed up with a red flag in his hands, asked me what it meant. I tried to explain social­ism to him in under a minute, and sens­ing his expres­sion, asked, does this mean you want to hand that back? He said: “no, sounds good, but I real­ly just took this flag because it matched my blue and white shirt.”

I admit that once the march got going the sight of a sea of red flags undu­lat­ing through the streets of Philadel­phia, the rest­ing place of the First Inter­na­tion­al, filled me with emo­tion, but there was a com­plete dis­junc­ture between the his­to­ry of that sym­bol and the pol­i­tics of those cheer­ful­ly wav­ing them. And it’s not just social­ism whose mean­ing may be unrav­el­ing. I saw a young man, clad entire­ly in black, a ban­dana cov­er­ing his face, and the red and black flag rest­ing on his shoul­der, a black bloc of one, com­plete­ly out of place in the march. On his tight black pants, a bright blue Bernie stick­er.

But when I began to inter­view demon­stra­tors at the con­ven­tion, I learned that this con­fu­sion over sym­bols, rhetoric, and ter­mi­nol­o­gy masked a very sur­pris­ing coheren­cy at the lev­el of polit­i­cal pro­gram. The few who had a sense of the dif­fer­ences between social­ism and social democ­ra­cy all defined them­selves as par­ti­sans of the lat­ter. One young man scrunched his face a bit and said that “no one idea” was good enough; we had to “com­bine” cap­i­tal­ism, which left on its own was “very bad,” with social­ism. In short, social democ­ra­cy. As for those who called them­selves social­ists, when pressed, they basi­cal­ly described Sanders’s plat­form, some­times ver­ba­tim. In fact, not a sin­gle Bernie per­son I spoke to at the DNC, oth­er than the usu­al sus­pects and com­rades I already knew, defined social­ism as any­thing like abol­ish­ing cap­i­tal­ism and the state. And if they did talk about putting an end to cap­i­tal­ism, they meant mak­ing the bil­lion­aires pay their fair share, plac­ing lim­i­ta­tions on cor­po­ra­tions, stop­ping the TPP, or break­ing up the banks – not, for exam­ple, over­com­ing the sep­a­ra­tion of the direct pro­duc­ers from the means of pro­duc­tion, decou­pling pro­duc­tive activ­i­ty from the accu­mu­la­tion of val­ue, doing away with pri­vate prop­er­ty and mon­ey, dis­man­tling the present divi­sion of labor, abol­ish­ing class­es, tak­ing apart the cap­i­tal­ist state, and instead self-man­ag­ing all aspects of life accord­ing to that famous max­im: from each accord­ing to one’s abil­i­ty to each accord­ing to one’s need.

There’s a dom­i­nant myth, enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly ped­dled by the media, that Bernie peo­ple are a hope­less­ly con­fused bunch. While Bernie sup­port­ers are no doubt a het­eroge­nous group, and some have quite a few con­tra­dic­to­ry ideas, near­ly all of the dozens of pro­test­ers I inter­viewed at the DNC could con­fi­dent­ly artic­u­late not only a coher­ent polit­i­cal pro­gram, but a rather con­sis­tent strat­e­gy based on elec­tions. Essen­tial­ly their posi­tion is this: the state is a mul­ti­leveled, uneven, but ulti­mate­ly neu­tral set of appa­ra­tus­es; the goal is to take con­trol of this state at all pos­si­ble lev­els, from the school board to the pres­i­den­cy, and use it to enact pro­gres­sive poli­cies; strug­gles out­side the state are encour­aged, and must be sup­port­ed, but win­ning pol­i­cy is key. All of social democ­ra­cy is here, though not a sin­gle per­son I spoke to described their pro­gram, strat­e­gy, and over­all pol­i­tics as social demo­c­ra­t­ic, like­ly because the term is so uncom­mon in the Unit­ed States. But again, not hav­ing the right vocab­u­lary does not mean that one does not have a coher­ent vision.

All this con­firmed what I had already begun to sus­pect from can­vass­ing; about half of the Philadel­phi­ans I spoke with were what one would call “ide­o­log­i­cal vot­ers,” or vot­ers back­ing the pro­gram. Of course, inquiries in Philadel­phia, along with con­ver­sa­tions with DNC pro­tes­tors can­not on their own jus­ti­fy a con­clu­sive state­ment about the polit­i­cal behav­iors of Bernie sup­port­ers on a nation­al scale. But sup­ple­ment­ing these find­ings with a quick look at region­al vot­ing pat­terns, exit polls, and sta­tis­ti­cal stud­ies might allow us to at least ven­ture a hypoth­e­sis: while Amer­i­cans vot­ed for Bernie for many dif­fer­ent rea­sons, about a lit­tle less than one-third of those vot­ers, along with a per­haps not so insignif­i­cant num­ber of inde­pen­dents who were barred from vot­ing in closed pri­maries or sim­ply don’t vote, back the spe­cif­ic social demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­gram artic­u­lat­ed by the Sanders cam­paign. We may call them, for lack of a bet­ter term, the “new social democ­rats.”

Of course, fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion is des­per­ate­ly need­ed, espe­cial­ly into the com­po­si­tion of the social forces con­sti­tut­ing this new social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent. From the avail­able data, we can begin with a few gen­er­al con­clu­sion about Sanders vot­ers. We know that Sanders did very well among the youth, espe­cial­ly young women, and the work­ing class, and that these are his two major bases of sup­port. Polls and vot­ing results also seem to sug­gest that Sanders vot­ers were very diverse, though, for rea­sons I have already dis­cussed else­where, old­er black vot­ers proved the major excep­tion, which still rais­es very impor­tant ques­tions about the social demo­c­ra­t­ic current’s path for­ward.

Donor infor­ma­tion also pro­vides anoth­er inter­est­ing, but by no means defin­i­tive, look at the com­po­si­tion of Sanders back­ers. Geo­graph­i­cal­ly, most of those who donat­ed to the Sanders cam­paign live in lib­er­al bas­tions such as the Pacif­ic North­west, New Eng­land, and Cal­i­for­nia, and if they are in the South or Sun­belt, they reside over­whelm­ing­ly in cities, like Austin, Texas. The vast major­i­ty are col­lege grad­u­ates, yet the high­est per­cent­age of dona­tions came from the unem­ployed. This seem­ing non-cor­re­la­tion – pro­le­tar­i­an and unem­ployed but with uni­ver­si­ty cre­den­tials – not only points to the effects of the reces­sion, but reaf­firms the ongo­ing role of the “grad­u­ate with­out a future” in the present cycle of strug­gle. I will also add that this par­tic­u­lar tech­ni­cal com­po­si­tion might help explain the con­tent of some of the cen­tral polit­i­cal demands of the social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent, such as debt for­give­ness, free edu­ca­tion, and uni­ver­sal health­care.

After the unem­ployed, work­ers in health care, edu­ca­tion, and tech­nol­o­gy con­sti­tute the next largest finan­cial sup­port­ers, which again reflects the gen­er­al­ly pro­le­tar­i­an char­ac­ter of most Sanders back­ers. It’s also no coin­ci­dence that these sec­tors, which con­cen­trate very high num­bers of work­ers, have become lead­ing indus­tries in cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion today. Indeed, the economies of many U.S. cities, such as Philadel­phia, are now large­ly based on hos­pi­tals, uni­ver­si­ties, and tech and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion firms.

But the mas­sive sup­port of high­er-income work­ers in the tech indus­try, espe­cial­ly those employed by enor­mous cap­i­tal­ist firms such as Google, does raise some impor­tant ques­tions about the class char­ac­ter of Bernie sup­port­ers as a whole. It also forces us to think more seri­ous­ly about how and why age may be just as impor­tant as class in deter­min­ing one’s pol­i­tics today.

While the com­po­si­tion of Sanders sup­port­ers may shed light on the com­po­si­tion of the social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent that has suc­ceed­ed the cam­paign, the two are not iden­ti­cal. Con­sid­er­able research is still required to bet­ter under­stand this cur­rent, where it is going, and, based on its com­po­si­tion, what polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties remain open. That said, while there is still much we do not know about this cur­rent – its size, geo­graph­i­cal dis­per­sion, and pre­cise class com­po­si­tion, for exam­ple – it nev­er­the­less exists. And from pre­lim­i­nary inves­ti­ga­tions, it seems a core of its mem­bers have a rel­a­tive­ly clear idea of what they want, how to get it, and who stands in the way.

A Current Dispersed

Giv­en its gen­e­sis in an elec­toral cam­paign, and the fact that it now must con­front the sharp lim­i­ta­tions of the two-par­ty sys­tem, it’s unsur­pris­ing that despite its pro­gram­mat­ic coher­ence, this social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent has not yet found a shared orga­ni­za­tion­al me, but remains high­ly dis­persed.

Some of the new social democ­rats have made a virtue out of this sit­u­a­tion by pri­or­i­tiz­ing pro­gram over orga­ni­za­tion. For exam­ple, one woman in her late twen­ties who was eager about local elec­tions told me that it did not mat­ter which par­ty can­di­dates should run under, Inde­pen­dent, Green, Demo­c­rat, so long as we got the “right peo­ple” into office. When I asked what con­sti­tut­ed the “right peo­ple,” she said those who adhered to Bernie’s basic demands: no TPP, mon­ey out of pol­i­tics, free health care, and so forth. This is the explic­it posi­tion of Brand New Con­gress, who will run any­one who loose­ly fol­lows the gen­er­al pro­gres­sive pro­gram irre­spec­tive of par­ty – even Repub­li­cans if the plat­form aligns. It’s also the basis of The Berniecrats Net­work, a data­base of all active can­di­dates who sup­port Bernie. “Being a Bernie­crat is not about par­ty affil­i­a­tion,” the site announces, “it’s about the issues.”

Oth­ers have turned to for­mal orga­ni­za­tions. A minor­i­ty have begun to form their own local groups. Some pre­ced­ed the pri­maries, but have been trans­formed by it. Oth­ers have emerged direct­ly out of the cam­paign, are based on the net­works forged dur­ing the pri­ma­ry sea­son, and involve for­mer can­vassers, vol­un­teers, and even field direc­tors. Small, flex­i­ble, and autonomous from the cam­paign, these com­bine elec­toral work with direct action and social move­ment orga­niz­ing.

Still oth­ers have begun to join exist­ing orga­ni­za­tions. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca, for exam­ple, now wel­comes upwards of 200 new mem­bers a month. The DSA’s suc­cess rel­a­tive to oth­er groups of its kind should not come as too great a sur­prise, giv­en that the line advanced by the organization’s right and even cen­ter accord much more strong­ly with the pro­gram unit­ing the Bernie sup­port­ers than that of the oth­er small­er social­ist orga­ni­za­tions. It will be inter­est­ing in this regard to see what this influx of social democ­rats will mean for the DSA’s left cau­cus.

At the same time, a not so neg­li­gi­ble num­ber of new social democ­rats have leapt into the Green Par­ty. This was felt most strong­ly at the DNC, where the com­mit­ment to leave the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, from both those protest­ing on the inside and those on the out­side, trans­lat­ed almost auto­mat­i­cal­ly into join­ing the Greens. To my sur­prise, many wore Bernie shirts with promi­nent­ly dis­played Green Par­ty pins. Oth­ers used black sharpies to add Jill Stein’s name to their blue Bernie signs. One of the most com­mon chants of the week was “Jill not Hill.” Most of the peo­ple I spoke to, regard­less of back­ground, declared they were vot­ing Green – the only major excep­tions being vot­ers reg­is­tered in swing states, but even then, quite a few said to hell with less­er evil­ism. At events through­out the DNC a string of Bernie sup­port­ers and del­e­gates went fur­ther, promis­ing that they would not only vote Green, but help can­vass, get Stein’s name on the bal­lot in var­i­ous states, and orga­nize the par­ty.

For some, this head­first dive into the Greens stemmed from sheer rage, a desire to take a prin­ci­pled moral stand, or to reg­is­ter protest with the sys­tem. For oth­ers it was a way to keep the move­ment alive by attach­ing it to anoth­er body. Jill Stein has per­son­al­ly encour­aged this nar­ra­tive, claim­ing that the Greens owe Bernie sup­port­ers for refus­ing “to be shut down by the DNC,” for refus­ing to let the move­ment die in Philadel­phia. This turn to the Greens can also be under­stood as the result of the nar­row elec­toral log­ic of some social democ­rats. If the strat­e­gy is to win elec­tions, and if one believes it’s impos­si­ble to reform the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, then a new par­ty is need­ed. As Stein has often explained, Bernie’s only real mis­take was to run a rev­o­lu­tion­ary cam­paign in a non-rev­o­lu­tion­ary par­ty. The Green Par­ty can be that par­ty, the “par­ty of the 99%.” As the slo­gan indi­cates, the Greens clear­ly see a kind of con­ti­nu­ity from Occu­py to Bernie to them­selves.

Once again, it’s the com­mon pro­gram that has allowed them to claim the man­tle as Bernie’s right­ful suc­ces­sors. After all, the Green Party’s social demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­gram is very sim­i­lar to Bernie’s, and at the Social­ist Con­ver­gence, Jill Stein effec­tive­ly took over Bernie’s stump speech, mov­ing through all the major talk­ing points to wild cheer­ing. To be sure, there are some notice­able addi­tions. At the party’s nation­al con­ven­tion in Hous­ton, Stein enu­mer­at­ed the well worn list of demands, from free health­care to block­ing the TPP, but includ­ed, for exam­ple, “pro­vid­ing repa­ra­tions for slav­ery and to the indige­nous peo­ple of this nation.” There’s also the pre­dictably stronger empha­sis on the envi­ron­ment, cap­tured in the Green Party’s pro­gram to cre­ate a “Green New Deal.” Fur­ther­more, it appears that for the moment the Green Par­ty has tak­en a page out of Bernie’s play­book by express­ing a will­ing­ness to expand its social demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics by absorb­ing demands from below. At the Social­ist Con­ver­gence, for exam­ple, some in the audi­ence direct­ly crit­i­cized the Greens for their stance against sex work, to which Stein replied that the Party’s offi­cial posi­tion was now under review. Some, like Stein and David Cobb, have explic­it­ly talked about build­ing alliances with Black Lives Mat­ter, with immi­grant strug­gles, and oth­er move­ments out­side of the elec­toral sphere, even wel­com­ing anti-cap­i­tal­ists into their ranks.

Still, it is far from clear whether the Greens can become orga­nized, flex­i­ble, and dynam­ic enough to not only re-artic­u­late the demands, aspi­ra­tions, and social forces first brought togeth­er by the Sanders cam­paign, but draw in new ele­ments that were nev­er there before. Giv­en how things have pro­ceed­ed since the end of the pri­maries, it looks like the Greens are falling short of their goal. If they want to play this artic­u­lat­ing role, they will very like­ly have to rethink their entire strat­e­gy, find new lead­er­ship, and ful­ly restruc­ture their orga­ni­za­tion, from the ground up. At the DNC, a few pro­test­ers told me that they felt the Green Par­ty is sim­ply too dis­or­ga­nized, insu­lar, episod­ic, and a word I’ve often heard to describe the par­ty, “kooky,” to take on the tasks ahead. Pes­simistic that the Greens could reform them­selves, they pro­posed, as an alter­na­tive, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of start­ing fresh with a total­ly new par­ty built from strug­gles at the grass­roots.

While the demon­stra­tors at the Con­ven­tion are in no way rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the coun­try at large, the idea of build­ing a social demo­c­ra­t­ic third par­ty is not as fringe as it may seem. Accord­ing to a poll released in ear­ly August, one-third of Bernie vot­ers had still not com­mit­ted to vot­ing for Hillary. Of course, this does not mean all four mil­lion are ready to build the new par­ty tomor­row; in fact, a chunk of these hold­outs will like­ly bite the bul­let and vote for Clin­ton in Novem­ber. But just because some Bernie sup­port­ers are vot­ing for Clin­ton to stop Trump does not mean that they may not be open to vot­ing for a third par­ty in local and state elec­tions, or maybe even a pres­i­den­tial one in four or eight years. Indeed, as Har­ry Enten has shown, since the Sanders cam­paign attract­ed more non-vot­ers, irreg­u­lar vot­ers, and new vot­ers than oth­er can­di­dates this elec­tion cycle, it’s not unrea­son­able to expect size­able num­bers of these vot­ers to be open to a third par­ty bid. (Enten also adds that this is pre­cise­ly why the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s attempt to bring recal­ci­trant Bernie vot­ers back into the par­ty is prov­ing far more chal­leng­ing than expect­ed: many were nev­er there to begin with.) We can add to this mass of unaligned Bernie vot­ers all the frus­trat­ed inde­pen­dents who were barred from vot­ing in the closed pri­maries, recall­ing that more Amer­i­cans are inde­pen­dents than Democ­rats or Repub­li­cans and that a size­able frac­tion of them are far­ther to the left than the Democ­rats. Reveal­ing­ly, about half of mil­len­ni­als, of which there are approx­i­mate­ly 80 mil­lion in all, the largest cohort size in his­to­ry, see them­selves as inde­pen­dents, and the most recent polls sug­gest that one third of vot­ers under thir­ty are plan­ning to vote for third par­ties. Bring all these fac­tors togeth­er and the num­ber of peo­ple who may be open to an orga­nized alter­na­tive to the left of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty at some point in the near future may not be so insignif­i­cant after all. And judg­ing by the recent spate of absurd arti­cles attack­ing Jill Stein and Ama­ju Bara­ka, it looks like the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and its ide­o­logues are start­ing to rec­og­nize this fact.

That said, despite poten­tial inter­est in even­tu­al­ly form­ing a new social demo­c­ra­t­ic third par­ty, noth­ing of the sort exists yet, and the only orga­ni­za­tion that may play such a role right now is only polling at 3 or 4%. As a result, many of the new social democ­rats are con­scious­ly try­ing to work inside the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty with the aim of “tak­ing it over.” For some, the fact that Bernie got so far shows that with more time, orga­ni­za­tion, and pro­fes­sion­al­ism, oth­er insur­gent cam­paigns might win. Oth­ers, tak­ing inspi­ra­tion from the far right’s “suc­cess” inside the Repub­li­can Par­ty, are argu­ing for a “Tea Par­ty of the Left.” Still oth­ers feel that giv­en the vir­tu­al impos­si­bil­i­ty of a suc­cess­ful third par­ty bid for the Pres­i­den­cy, run­ning in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty remains the only real­is­tic option. I will only say here that while par­ti­sans of this strat­e­gy are right to draw atten­tion to the struc­tur­al lim­its of the two-par­ty sys­tem, even the most cur­so­ry glance at the his­to­ry of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty shows that attempt­ing to “take over” the Par­ty has nev­er suc­ceed­ed. Of course, past fail­ures do not nec­es­sar­i­ly spell inevitable defeat in the present, but an hon­est assess­ment of the sit­u­a­tion would reveal that now is per­haps the worst time to try to take over the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. As this pri­ma­ry showed, the Par­ty appa­ra­tus is not inde­pen­dent, but has now become syn­ony­mous with the Clin­ton appa­ra­tus. Fur­ther­more, with Hillary Clin­ton at the helm, the Par­ty is active­ly court­ing mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans, try­ing to earn the sup­port of fig­ures like a for­mer CIA direc­tor and the war crim­i­nal Hen­ry Kissinger. Despite its new, non-bind­ing plat­form pay­ing lip ser­vice to social democ­ra­cy, the Party’s firm lurch towards to the right, along with its strong sup­port from big cap­i­tal and promi­nent mil­i­tary forces, means that those Bernie sup­port­ers com­mit­ted to work­ing with­in the two-par­ty sys­tem may actu­al­ly have an eas­i­er time try­ing to take over the Repub­li­can Par­ty.

Of course, these orga­ni­za­tion­al options are not mutu­al­ly exclu­sive. A few Sanders sup­port­ers have joined the DSA, spear­head local ini­tia­tives, and at the same time plan to take over the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. But far more impor­tant than over­lap­ping strate­gies is the fact that most of the new social democ­rats have cho­sen to stay infor­mal­ly orga­nized. That is to say, they can be con­sid­ered part of the cur­rent because they sup­port the gen­er­al pro­gram, and they pos­si­bly dis­cuss their ideas with friends and fam­i­ly who share their views, but they do not belong to any for­mal polit­i­cal efforts. Some may be “in” the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, but giv­en the nature of par­ty pol­i­tics, that’s almost like say­ing they are “in” the Philadel­phia Eagles. Fur­ther­more, since so many of those who sup­port­ed Bernie in the pri­maries are inde­pen­dents, irreg­u­lar vot­ers, or non-vot­ers, it is like­ly that many do not even have a loose con­nec­tion to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. But just because these social democ­rats are unaf­fil­i­at­ed does not mean they have per­ma­nent­ly with­drawn from pol­i­tics. If some viable, orga­nized force were to emerge, one with some polit­i­cal pow­er, some poten­tial to real­ize ele­ments of the social demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­gram, it’s not unlike­ly that they would lend their sup­port. The key task for the social democ­rats, then, is to find a way to not only main­tain, but ele­vate their cur­rent into a more expan­sive, durable form of uni­ty.

It seems that some post-Bernie social demo­c­ra­t­ic groups are already propos­ing some ways for­ward. First, while most seem to pre­fer a con­stel­la­tion of rel­a­tive­ly inde­pen­dent, local groups, some social democ­rats have begun dis­cussing the need to strate­gi­cal­ly coor­di­nate their var­i­ous ini­tia­tives, espe­cial­ly now that Bernie Sanders’s own orga­ni­za­tion, Our Rev­o­lu­tion, seems fat­ed to become just anoth­er PAC.

Sec­ond, some social democ­rats, includ­ing Bernie him­self, have begun talk­ing about the need to carve out an inde­pen­dent social demo­c­ra­t­ic social space, begin­ning with alter­na­tive media. In this, social democ­rats might con­sid­er tak­ing a page out of clas­si­cal Ger­man social democracy’s play­book. In addi­tion to the Ger­man Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty (SPD), social democ­rats con­struct­ed hun­dreds of orga­ni­za­tions well out­side the par­lia­men­tary ter­rain, such as read­ing soci­eties, out­doors groups, libraries, and singing, shoot­ing, bik­ing, the­atre, and ath­let­ics clubs, women’s and youth groups, and a colos­sal edu­ca­tion­al and intel­lec­tu­al wing, count­ing dozens of pub­li­ca­tions, from news­pa­pers to lifestyle mag­a­zines to the­o­ret­i­cal jour­nals. This expan­sive social demo­c­ra­t­ic sub­cul­ture and ecosys­tem made pos­si­ble social democracy’s par­lia­men­tary work. Obvi­ous­ly, past mod­els can­not be mechan­i­cal­ly trans­plant­ed to the present, yet the essen­tial point remains: artic­u­la­tion can­not func­tion pure­ly on the elec­toral stage, but requires a social basis else­where.

Last­ly, in order to sus­tain the cur­rent as a uni­ty of social forces, some post-Bernie ini­tia­tives, such as Reclaim Philadel­phia, are explic­it­ly dis­cussing the need to con­nect with oth­er strug­gles, cur­rents, and move­ments. After all, some of the core orga­niz­ers of this cur­rent have passed through or are still part of move­ments, from Occu­py to the Fight for 15 to BLM to BDS to var­i­ous labor strug­gles, where some have col­lab­o­rat­ed with those on the far left. This past week­end, for exam­ple, Reclaim Philly activists helped orga­nize coor­di­nat­ed actions across the city in sol­i­dar­i­ty with Stand­ing Rock. In addi­tion, some social democ­rats rec­og­nize that most of the new peo­ple drawn into the social demo­c­ra­t­ic orbit have nev­er been involved in strug­gles of any kind, and that the sur­vival of their cur­rent depends on con­nect­ing them to ongo­ing move­ments out­side the elec­toral sphere. In the case of Reclaim Philadel­phia, new mem­bers are com­plete­ly in favor of mov­ing in this direc­tion. Indeed, a recent sur­vey of new mem­bers and sup­port­ers showed that the major­i­ty want­ed Reclaim Philly to pri­or­i­tize cli­mate change and Black Lives Mat­ter along­side elec­toral work.

Social Democracy Obstructed

It wasn’t the police, who were too busy test­ing their “nego­ti­at­ed man­age­ment” tac­tics, but an enor­mous thun­der­storm that dis­persed that first day of demon­stra­tions out­side the Wells Far­go Cen­ter. About three hun­dred of us raced to an under­pass, where I struck up a con­ver­sa­tion with a demon­stra­tor who said he drove from Michi­gan to do his part in push­ing the DNC to con­firm Bernie as the nom­i­nee. “It was their last chance,” he said; if they didn’t come to their sens­es, he was out. While we chat­ted, about a dozen youths, unde­terred by the weath­er, con­tin­ued the protest by step­ping into the road to block traf­fic. Although many of the oth­er demon­stra­tors expressed their dis­ap­proval, my inter­locu­tor joined the action. When the block­ade was forced aside, I found my new friend, who imme­di­ate­ly began to reflect: I get that it piss­es the dri­vers off, and some of them might even be for Bernie. But you know, it might annoy them for like thir­ty min­utes, but this elec­tion affects our entire lives. That’s what Black Lives Mat­ter did. If they didn’t get out there and shut down traf­fic, make things stop, then the issues might have been for­got­ten. We’ve got to dis­rupt people’s lives, like Black Lives Mat­ter.

Some Sanders sup­port­ers, I learned that week, see their cam­paign as part of a larg­er field of strug­gle that includes BLM, hint­ing at the pos­si­bil­i­ty of an encounter. Indeed, the suc­cess of the social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent will like­ly depend in some part on its rela­tion­ship to the gen­er­al move­ment of Black Lives Mat­ter, which is itself a dis­tinct, but com­plex and uneven form of uni­ty. For while both BLM and the Sanders cur­rent are both deeply con­nect­ed to Occu­py, the for­mal rela­tion­ship to each oth­er has been quite min­i­mal. That said, the con­nec­tion is not impos­si­ble, and the recent release of the “Vision for Black Lives,” the plat­form of a self-described “Unit­ed Front” of over 50 orga­ni­za­tions work­ing under the sign of BLM, may actu­al­ly increase the chances of such an encounter. After all, the pro­gram con­tains some very strong social demo­c­ra­t­ic inflec­tions, and some of its demands are vir­tu­al­ly iden­ti­cal to the ones pro­posed by the Sanders cam­paign – uni­ver­sal health­care, free edu­ca­tion, for­giv­ing stu­dent loans, stop­ping the TPP, get­ting mon­ey out of pol­i­tics, real­lo­cat­ing funds from police and pris­ons to edu­ca­tion, divest­ing from fos­sil fuels and invest­ing in renew­able ener­gy, or, one of Bernie’s favorites, restor­ing Glass-Stea­gall. More fun­da­men­tal­ly, the program’s basic vision seems to call for a kind of demil­i­ta­rized though still robust wel­fare state able to cre­ate jobs pro­grams, fund black insti­tu­tions, pro­tect work­ers’ rights, expand afford­able hous­ing, reg­u­late income inequal­i­ty, and devolve pow­er and con­trol to local black com­mu­ni­ties. But as I said, BLM is a high­ly het­ero­ge­neous form of uni­ty, and the many groups that have unit­ed under that gen­er­al ban­ner have very dif­fer­ent pol­i­tics. As such, BLM deserves it own treat­ment, which I will under­take else­where.

But there was anoth­er aspect of the action under the under­pass that war­rants clos­er analy­sis: the dis­so­nance between the mil­i­tan­cy of the tac­tic and the mod­er­a­tion of the demand. Shut­ting down traf­fic to get a cer­tain social demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date nom­i­nat­ed to rep­re­sent a lib­er­al par­ty in the gen­er­al elec­tion seemed a bit odd. But this incon­gruity between sym­bols, rhetoric, and tac­tics on the one hand and polit­i­cal con­tent on the oth­er has actu­al­ly char­ac­ter­ized the Sanders cam­paign from the start. How can we explain this?

It seems that this kind of dis­so­nance is the result of the social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent con­tin­u­al­ly run­ning up against the lim­its of cap­i­tal­ism and the state appa­ra­tus­es, which, instead of lead­ing to res­ig­na­tion and demor­al­iza­tion, has for now had the oppo­site effect, rad­i­cal­iz­ing its par­ti­sans beyond what their spe­cif­ic pol­i­tics may rea­son­ably require for their real­iza­tion.

In many pre­vi­ous cas­es, social democ­ra­cy result­ed from a spe­cif­ic com­pro­mise between dom­i­nat­ed social forces and those frac­tions of the rul­ing bloc that acknowl­edged the grav­i­ty of a giv­en cri­sis. Today, despite our own cri­sis, no frac­tion of the rul­ing bloc has advanced a robust social demo­c­ra­t­ic solu­tion with any con­vic­tion. To be sure, dif­fer­ent frac­tions of the rul­ing bloc have pro­posed com­pet­ing strate­gies; but while Barack Obama’s solu­tion to man­ag­ing the cri­sis cer­tain­ly dif­fers from that of the Tea Par­ty Repub­li­can, and may con­tain a few Key­ne­sian ele­ments, it does not con­sist of any­thing like social democ­ra­cy, despite all the talk of Obama’s “New New Deal.” Indeed, most frac­tions of the rul­ing bloc remain ful­ly com­mit­ted to a spe­cif­ic neolib­er­al regime of accu­mu­la­tion, albeit with vary­ing degrees of reform. If this were not the case, if some frac­tions of the rul­ing bloc open­ly advo­cat­ed some kind of robust social demo­c­ra­t­ic solu­tion to the cri­sis, then it’s quite like­ly that this new social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent would ally with those frac­tions. Instead, the social democ­rats find them­selves obstruct­ed, with no polit­i­cal out­let, no place to trans­late their demands into con­crete poli­cies.

The rul­ing bloc is not only unin­ter­est­ed in social democ­ra­cy, it is active­ly try­ing to crush it. Recall how the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, big cap­i­tal, lib­er­al media appa­ra­tus­es, reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions, and pro­fes­sion­al politi­cians all worked tire­less­ly to sab­o­tage the Sanders cam­paign. I’m hes­i­tant to make this claim, since it might lead some to ignore the fun­da­men­tal prob­lems of Sanders’s cam­paign, above all his inabil­i­ty to break into cru­cial sec­tions of the work­ing class, such as old­er black work­ers, but if this had been a free, fair, and open elec­tion, Sanders would have most like­ly won. We knew the lib­er­al frac­tions of the rul­ing bloc would strug­gle hard to pre­vent a Sanders vic­to­ry, but we did not real­ize the extent to which they would go to crush the cam­paign – this was of course because no one, not even the rul­ing bloc, expect­ed the mass effort that drove the Sanders cam­paign. Giv­en this kind of resis­tance to the elec­toral cam­paign, imag­ine what it would take to actu­al­ly real­ize social demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics in this coun­try. Win­ning just a few key social demo­c­ra­t­ic demands would like­ly require mil­i­tant actions, incred­i­ble mass mobi­liza­tions, and tremen­dous exper­i­ments in self-man­age­ment.

But the chal­lenges fac­ing the social democ­rats do not sim­ply stem from oppo­si­tion­al atti­tudes, but from insti­tu­tion­al struc­tures. To real­ize their social demo­c­ra­t­ic agen­da, Sanders sup­port­ers fig­ured they could demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly trans­form the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. But over the course of the elec­tion, every­one began to see how the par­ty is dom­i­nat­ed by recal­ci­trant ele­ments with vest­ed inter­ests in main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo. They pos­sess incred­i­ble pow­er, com­mand an array of resources to destroy insur­gen­cies from with­in, and will not play by their own rules. Giv­en the insti­tu­tion­al lim­its of a Par­ty appa­ra­tus of this kind, this social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent would, in a par­lia­men­tary sys­tem with pro­por­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion, form its own inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal par­ty, result­ing in some­thing like Podemos in Spain. It would try to win votes, make coali­tions with oth­er par­ties, and may even real­ize some of its pro­gram.

But that’s not an option in this coun­try, and the attempt to escape the lim­its of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty would lead straight to the lim­its of state itself. In oth­er words, the par­tic­u­lar form of the cap­i­tal­ist state – its “insti­tu­tion­al mate­ri­al­i­ty,” as Poulantzas once called it – impos­es clear lim­its on what is polit­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble. Short of a cat­a­clysmic cri­sis like the Civ­il War, the first-past-the-post, elec­toral col­lege vot­ing sys­tem in this coun­try will tend to repro­duce a two-par­ty sys­tem. Thus, the social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent once more finds itself obstruct­ed, this time by the very struc­tures of the U.S. state. As we have seen, it is pre­cise­ly this sit­u­a­tion that has giv­en rise to a num­ber of rival ten­den­cies, such as work­ing with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, build­ing the Green Par­ty, or per­haps even cre­at­ing a new third par­ty.

Since the insti­tu­tion­al lim­its of the state seem less severe at the local lev­el, it is unsur­pris­ing that despite their dif­fer­ences over whether to work inside or out­side the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, the vast major­i­ty of the new social democ­rats have turned their atten­tion here. But while the turn towards local elec­tions will like­ly meet with some ini­tial suc­cess, here, too, they will con­front struc­tur­al lim­its. Run­ning local gov­ern­ments will not only bog activists down in the quo­tid­i­an, but will like­ly sep­a­rate the elect­ed offi­cials from mobi­liza­tions on the out­side. Fur­ther­more, local offices have been left with rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle mon­ey, resources, or pow­er, cer­tain­ly not enough to enact major changes and real­ize the span of social demo­c­ra­t­ic demands, even in a fed­er­al­ist sys­tem like the Unit­ed States. Of course, some impor­tant reforms will be passed, but not the most sub­stan­tial, last­ing items, which will require nation­al action. At this lev­el, the first-past-the-post vot­ing sys­tem will block inde­pen­dents run­ning for Con­gress and the Sen­ate, espe­cial­ly since the Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats will like­ly work togeth­er to stop insur­gent social democ­rats, as they did in the past. As for those run­ning as Democ­rats, they, too, will face incred­i­ble dif­fi­cul­ties, as the par­ty estab­lish­ment will either sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly sab­o­tage all insur­gent cam­paigns or defang them once suc­cess­ful. At some point, then, try­ing to push through the social demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­gram at the exec­u­tive or nation­al leg­isla­tive lev­el will at like­ly require over­turn­ing the two-par­ty sys­tem, that is, rad­i­cal­ly trans­form­ing the very mate­ri­al­i­ty of the U.S. state.

Of course, even if activists could trans­form the state, it is an open ques­tion whether this kind of social demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­gram may be pos­si­ble in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, which points to anoth­er kind of struc­tur­al lim­it, that of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. Although the social demo­c­ra­t­ic moments of the New Deal and Great Soci­ety are for obvi­ous rea­sons non-repeat­able, this does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean it is impos­si­ble for social democ­rats to invent some kind of his­tor­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate social democ­ra­cy for their own time, despite what some recent philoso­phies of his­to­ry seems to sug­gest. Yet even here the social democ­rats will reach impass­es. To real­ize just some of these social demo­c­ra­t­ic demands would not only like­ly require mass social orga­ni­za­tion, or recon­fig­ur­ing the insti­tu­tion­al mate­ri­al­i­ty of the state, but prob­a­bly a fun­da­men­tal trans­for­ma­tion of the regime of accu­mu­la­tion as well. For exam­ple, call­ing for a com­plete­ly restruc­tured crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem that halts the exe­cu­tion of the poor, bars the state from extort­ing mon­ey from the work­ing class, and rad­i­cal­ly reduces the num­ber of pris­ons, to say noth­ing of abol­ish­ing them, would spell a mas­sive cri­sis for con­tem­po­rary U.S. cap­i­tal­ism, giv­en how impor­tant infor­mal economies, pris­ons, and the over­all man­age­ment of sur­plus pop­u­la­tions have become to cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. The same can be said about the var­i­ous demands to pun­ish finance, reg­u­late cor­po­ra­tions, and reduce income inequal­i­ty. This won’t spell the end of cap­i­tal­ism; but it will force a dra­mat­ic restruc­tur­ing of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions.

The point is there­fore not sim­ply that the social democ­rats will have to fight hard to win, but that they face fun­da­men­tal struc­tur­al lim­its, some of which are unique to the Unit­ed States. As it stands, these lim­its, of which I’ve only list­ed a few, have led an oth­er­wise mod­er­ate social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent to assume a more rad­i­cal edge. This helps explain all the talk of “rev­o­lu­tion,” “chang­ing the sys­tem,” or “social­ism,” as well as the embrace of mil­i­tant tac­tics such as coor­di­nat­ed march­es, gueril­la media cam­paigns, block­ing traf­fic, or get­ting arrest­ed. The same can be said about the sym­bol­ic lev­el. With the path of social democ­ra­cy blocked, Bernie sup­port­ers are reach­ing for what­ev­er sym­bols of revolt they can find, wav­ing red flags or rais­ing their fists in the com­mu­nist salute at ral­lies. These are things that accom­pa­ny a social move­ment, not an elec­toral cam­paign.

Forms of Unity

If my hypoth­e­sis is cor­rect, the far left can­not expect to swift­ly absorb the Bernie vot­ers into its ranks. They are not drift­ing ele­ments, unat­tached to any pro­gram, polit­i­cal­ly amor­phous, and there­fore com­plete­ly open to new ideas; a sol­id core of Bernie peo­ple have con­sti­tut­ed their own coher­ent social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent. They will like­ly devel­op their own orga­ni­za­tions, pro­mote their own lead­ers, and advance their own social demo­c­ra­t­ic ideas, which will like­ly replace the vague anar­chism that used to dom­i­nate much of the wider left in the Unit­ed States. In this sense, their tra­jec­to­ry may be sim­i­lar to what hap­pened in Spain, when the new­ly politi­cized social forces of the 2011-12 strug­gles went on to con­struct their own form of uni­ty, which took one form as Podemos, rather than join­ing the exist­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary left.

But just because this cur­rent con­sti­tutes its own inde­pen­dent force does not mean that the far left can sim­ply mind its own busi­ness. This cur­rent is unlike­ly to dis­solve any time soon, it will con­tin­ue to cap­ture the atten­tion of young peo­ple, its ini­tia­tives will have effects across the social ter­rain, and, most impor­tant­ly of all, it may fur­ther rad­i­cal­ize in the near future, espe­cial­ly since some of its mem­bers will like­ly engage with strug­gles in which the far left is deeply involved. All of this means one can­not afford to dis­count it sim­ply because it is not rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ist. Pol­i­tics does not con­sist in mea­sur­ing real devel­op­ments up against abstract cri­te­ria. Ignor­ing the objec­tive lev­els of strug­gle of a giv­en con­junc­ture by ahis­tor­i­cal­ly repeat­ing the same max­i­mal­ist slo­gans will only lead to mar­gin­al­iza­tion, though it increas­ing­ly seems that some on the far left are quite hap­py reduc­ing their pol­i­tics to a lifestyle or a book­shelf.

At the same time, we can­not afford to let some stag­ist mod­el of pol­i­tics lead us to oppor­tunis­ti­cal­ly sub­or­di­nate our­selves to this cur­rent, as some on the oth­er end of the spec­trum seem to sug­gest. We do not need to focus our ener­gies on con­vinc­ing mass­es of peo­ple to join the social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent, hop­ing that it might serve as a gate­way drug to some­thing more rad­i­cal. And we cer­tain­ly do not need social democ­ra­cy in the Unit­ed States before we are allowed to move to social­ism. Polit­i­cal rad­i­cal­iza­tion moves by leaps and rup­tures, not by clear-cut, incre­men­tal stages.

This social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent is far from sta­t­ic, and the par­tic­u­lar con­di­tions in the Unit­ed States have lent it a cer­tain degree of uneven­ness and unpre­dictabil­i­ty. Up to now, the chal­lenges fac­ing the social democ­rats have made them more rad­i­cal. While the effects of this rad­i­cal­iza­tion have thus far been felt pri­mar­i­ly at the lev­el of sym­bols, tac­tics, and rhetoric, it’s quite pos­si­ble that the pro­gram may itself change into some­thing more rad­i­cal in the near future. If the last few years are any indi­ca­tion, we can con­tin­ue to expect new strug­gles and new waves of repres­sion in this coun­try, which may push the social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent in new direc­tions. That said, it’s just as pos­si­ble that at a cer­tain point the social democ­rats will grow demor­al­ized and the cur­rent will com­plete­ly dis­si­pate. The tra­jec­to­ry of this cur­rent is unclear not sim­ply because we can­not know the future, but because there is still much that remains unknown about this new cur­rent.

Indeed, in order to con­struct an effec­tive strat­e­gy for relat­ing to this cur­rent, we still need to learn more. As I have indi­cat­ed above, this means, above all, inves­ti­gat­ing the spe­cif­ic com­po­si­tion of the var­i­ous social forces that have tem­porar­i­ly unit­ed in this cur­rent. What are these social forces? Which ones orga­nize the cen­ter and which stand at the periph­eries? What are their rel­a­tive strengths? What are their com­po­si­tion­al pro­files? Can we map the social demo­c­ra­t­ic cur­rent geo­graph­i­cal­ly? In cities, are there cer­tain neigh­bor­hoods or wards that are solid­ly social demo­c­ra­t­ic? What about Sanders sup­port­ers in the rur­al Unit­ed States? Which sec­tors of the work­ing class do they tend to issue from? Are they clus­tered in cer­tain occu­pa­tions? What ratio is unem­ployed or under­em­ployed? Polit­i­cal­ly, what do they read, how were they rad­i­cal­ized? How do they relate to oth­er strug­gles and move­ments today? And per­haps, how do they see their rela­tion­ship to the far left?

Answer­ing these ques­tions will take seri­ous study and will require the cre­ative use of a vari­ety of modes of inquiry. Some of this inves­ti­ga­tion will also have to be coop­er­a­tive, though I can­not imag­ine that social democ­rats would be averse to such a project since the find­ings will not only ben­e­fit the far left, but the social democ­rats them­selves. After all, in order to grow, the new social democ­rats will have to under­take a detailed assess­ment of their own forces, which means engag­ing in rig­or­ous inquiry. No mat­ter what par­tic­u­lar meth­ods are select­ed, if the far left is to devel­op an effec­tive strat­e­gy with regards to this new cur­rent, and, in the future, devel­op its own rev­o­lu­tion­ary solu­tion to the prob­lem of artic­u­la­tion, it must start by for­mu­lat­ing a rig­or­ous research pro­gram to grasp and map all the rela­tions of force that deter­mine our present con­junc­ture.

Such a map must include the social democ­rats, of course, but also oth­er forms of uni­ty, such as Black Lives Mat­ter. It must also include the far left. After all, despite vague agree­ment on a some basic points, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary left in this coun­try is by no means a sin­gle enti­ty; it is per­haps even less coher­ent than the new social democ­ra­cy. Ask­ing how the far left relates to the social democ­rats there­fore neces­si­tates ask­ing what the far left’s rela­tion­ship is to itself. In this respect, devis­ing a strat­e­gy for relat­ing to the social democ­rats will have to go hand in hand with for­mu­lat­ing a strat­e­gy for the var­i­ous sec­tors of the far left to relate to one anoth­er. If past expe­ri­ence is any indi­ca­tion, this will be an ardu­ous task.


Author of the article

is a founding editor of Viewpoint and a postdoctoral fellow in History at Bowdoin College.