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?

Articulation

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 doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.