Not Me, Us
Bernie Sanders: Another leftwing hopeful has failed. The debate on socialism in the 21st century, however, continues – in times of pandemic more urgently than ever
by Ingar Solty
Bernie Sanders has ended his presidential campaign. Just in this moment of crisis, when his broad-based social reform program is sorely needed. Even the New York Times recognized this, in an article entitled "Bernie Sanders Was Right." Without public health insurance for all, tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, will die an avoidable death in the US in the coming months.
It was obvious that Bernie Sanders was going to end his campaign, but it is emotionally devastating nonetheless.
The defeat of Corbyn in December and the now-sealed defeat of Sanders end an era. This does not mean that the strategy of the socialist left – of taking over bourgeois / center-left mass parties in countries with first-past-the-post electoral systems, historically defeated working classes and eroded professional-managerial “middle classes” and using them as a podium to help revive from above the class consciousness of the working classes in those countries – was wrong. In the current context, it was the only option.
But after further setbacks such as the defeat of Rebecca Long-Bailey as the new leader of the UK Labour Party, is this option finished? In any case, it seems to be over for now, at this particular historic moment, with its key figures of recent years.
We are all indebted to Bernie Sanders for everything he has done, over the course of his lifetime and particularly in the last decade, for the multiethnic working class and its movement, for social justice, racial equality, women's rights and gender equality, ecological sustainability, climate justice, peace, and the vision of a fully democratized socialist society.
After six decades of unwavering and principled struggle, Bernie Sanders is and shall remain a heroic figure in the history of international socialism. His legacy will be similar to that which Bertolt Brecht ascribed to Marx and Engels in "Me-ti: Book of Interventions in the Flow of Things": that they kept the idea of revolution alive after 1848, despite capitalism experiencing another two and a half decades of prosperity and political stability before the Paris Commune and the Long Depression (1873-1896).
It will also be similar to the legacy often ascribed to the Frankfurt School, namely that of having acted as a "message in a bottle" that enabled Marxist thought to survive two decades of West German post-fascism: a society in which the historically strongest workers' movement in the world had just been killed off by National Socialism and in which the Golden Age of Capitalism created the illusion of a non-capitalist industrial and "leveled middle-class society."
Bernie Sanders was defeated by the concerted action of the neoliberal elites in the Democratic party leadership. "Mr. Sanders (...) [had] been seen as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in February, but a rapid consolidation of the party's establishment around Mr. Biden in early March reversed his fortunes," wrote the Wall Street Journal.
The billionaires behind Joe Biden and Wall Street capital can pop the Champagne corks. After Sanders's announcement, Wall Street share prices exploded and the Dow Jones stock-market index shot up more than 600 points.
But their victory is only temporary. Because Sanders was never about Bernie Sanders. "Not Me, Us" was his campaign slogan, and the mobilization of a social counterweight to capital was the goal of his "political revolution." Nor was Sanders ever about the contrast between Democrats and Republicans or between liberalism and the rightwing authoritarian nationalism of Donald Trump, even though he declared him as his main opponent and has now expressed his support for Joe Biden – a decision which may be criticized.
Socialism in the 21st century
Sanders' campaign was about much more than that. The fault line ran and runs through the parties in both the US and the UK. Accordingly, Sanders' message in a bottle was intended to teach millions of workers, and especially young people in the US battered by capitalism, the fundamental difference between the progressive neoliberalism of the rest of the Democrats and a class-conflict-oriented social democracy and socialism. It was meant to help them recognize their own strength, to encourage them get organized as a working-class movement – in the workplace, in neighborhoods, and as a political movement.
At the same time, Sanders was the socialist vision’s fountain of youth in the United States and, given the US’s nature as a global empire, also worldwide. In the US, after more than a decade of these politics as a senator, millions of new Sanders are now ready to pick up where the 78-year-old left off, starting with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and all the other new socialists inside and outside of Congress.
The discussion about what socialism could be in the 21st century continues – and the politics and the movement working towards it continue. The need for this discussion is more evident in the time of corona than ever before. People are currently being killed in the US not just by COVID-19, but also by an infrastructure and public sphere eroded by neoliberalism.
Not even death makes everyone equal. In Chicago, with an African-American population of 30 percent, Black Americans account for 70 percent of coronavirus cases. In the US state of Oregon, Latinos make up 13 percent of the population but 29 percent of those who tested positive for coronavirus.
No one ever said it was gonna be easy. Nobody said rebuilding the working class as a conscious and militant movement was going to be doable in a couple of years. What we need today – in this moment of defeat and sadness – is to think about the long trajectory. We should remember where socialism and left theory and practice were three or even two decades ago in the core capitalist countries and where they are now, in spite of everything.
In his concession speech, Sanders quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." It doesn't do that by itself.
Ingar Solty is a senior research fellow at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis and editor of Das Argument. This article first appeared in German in der Freitag. Reproduced with the author's permission. Translation by Julie Niederhauser