Political Revolution in the Twenty-First Century

Bernie Sanders will probably run for president again in 2020. Democratic socialists should start thinking about what to do if he wins.

We don’t know exactly what Bernie Sanders means by a “political revolution,” but we can deduce his vision is largely electoral and legislative in nature. Since his presidential campaign ended, most of Sanders’ activity has consisted of submitting progressive legislation with no chance of passing in the current Congress and of supporting progressive Democrats running for office. It is not clear how, if at all, Sanders would escalate his revolution were he and/or a critical mass of progressive candidates to gain office. Sanders has given no indication that he desires a restructuring of either the state or the capitalist mode of production. Instead, the content of his political revolution is something like an expanded and updated New Deal.

Such policies, and Sanders’ role in propounding them, are very important. However, they are insufficient for a political revolution. A true political revolution in the U.S. today would mean a socialist, working-class party had entered government by winning elections and begun to transform both the policies and the nature of the state. The goal of such a government would be strengthening working class organizing to the point that it could, in the words of the UK Labour Party’s John McDonnell, effect an “irreversible shift in wealth and power” in favor of working people.

To create an enduring political revolution and to get such a working-class party elected in the first place, millions of people would need to be engaged in active class conflict outside the state as well as within it. There are, however, many obstacles to raising class conflict to that level. A political revolution would mean elected officials using the power of the state to reduce these obstacles while actively supporting mass labor and social movements. These movements, organized well enough to mobilize millions of working people, would in turn further bolster socialist and progressive officeholders while pushing them to take ever more aggressive positions against capital and its representatives in the state.

In other words, the key task of a fully-fledged political revolution would be to both change the actions of the state (enacting policies that support, rather than attack, working class self-organization) and its nature (making it more representative, participatory, and vastly more democratic, rather than repressive and bureaucratic).

We do not have any indication that Sanders has either the desire or the capability to lead this type of political revolution. Nevertheless, in this historical moment, to most effectively move toward political revolution, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) should work hard to elect Bernie Sanders president and then push him to do everything possible to facilitate working class organizing from below. Under a President Sanders, DSA’s role would be to push the administration to the left, keep the Sanders base mobilized against the inevitable reaction, and further organize and expand that base around socialist politics.

Sanders will face incredibly difficult, possibly insurmountable, hurdles to achieving even his relatively mild vision of a political revolution. However, it is important that we organize to win as much of it as possible. If the working- and middle-class coalition necessary for a Sanders victory remains mobilized against capital and its representatives in the state throughout his presidency, then we could potentially have organized the social base for a new political party of the type that could begin to enact a broader political revolution sometime after Sanders leaves office–though this is still far from certain.

To be clear, in thinking about a political revolution of the type I’ve described above the important thing is not Sanders the person, but the social forces that his potential candidacy and presidency could organize and activate. I will focus very little on what Sanders should or should not do, and instead on what we, as working-class organizers, should do in relation to those social forces.

Below, I discuss Ralph Miliband’s framework of the democratic road to socialism as an alternative to Sanders’ political revolution. I consider how the vision of the democratic road to socialism can guide our organizing, and then explain why an orientation towards Sanders and the base he needs to win is a crucial immediate task. Finally, I offer some concrete suggestions on what we could do to move beyond Sanders and towards the political revolution described above.

Ralph Miliband and Revolutionary Reformism

In the U.S. or any other liberal democracy, a successful political revolution will likely look similar to the framework British Marxist Ralph Miliband laid out in his book Marxism and Politics, as well as in various essays. This strategy is often called the “democratic road to socialism.” Miliband also referred to it, interchangeably, as “Marxist reformism” or “revolutionary reformism” (subsequent Miliband quotations are drawn from Marxism and Politics).

According to Miliband, the most viable path to political revolution in countries like the US is for an organized working-class party or parties to enter the government by popular election and then bring class struggle to the workings of the state itself. The task of such a transitional state would be to establish a “combination of direction and democracy sufficiently effective to keep the conservative forces in check and to provide the conditions under which the process of transition [to socialism] may proceed.” In order for a successful transition to take place, the state would need to be guided and supported by democratic unions and social movements capable of articulating material working class demands. Between now and entering the state, socialists should focus on developing working-class organizations and achieving revolutionary reforms that alleviate the burdens on the working class while making future working class organizing easier.

In contrast to this view, liberals focus almost exclusively on legislative reforms. However, Marxist or revolutionary reformism differs from “reformism” as the term is pejoratively used on the left. Two things differentiate revolutionary reformism from social democratic or liberal reformism. The first is the ultimate goal, and the second is the method of organizing.

In practice, and often in rhetoric, liberal reformists either view reforms as ends in themselves, or as means to strengthen or balance capitalism by mitigating its most harmful aspects. As Miliband writes, reforms thus conceived tend not to “form part of a coherent and comprehensive strategy of change, least of all socialist change.” Such reforms have little or no effect on the balance of power between classes. Revolutionary reformists, on the other hand, view reforms as steps toward increasing the working class’ ability to organize and fight for socialism, and they prioritize reforms most likely to further that project.

Let’s take a concrete example to illustrate this first difference. A reform like the Affordable Care Act (ACA) does provide some real benefits to working people. However, with its complicated paperwork, income-based eligibility, tax penalties, and multi-tiered system of care, it keeps the working class divided based on relative degrees of privilege. It reinforces the notion that for-profit insurance companies and employers are the primary providers and administrators of care, and people remain chained to their jobs if they want to keep “good” insurance – if they are lucky enough to have such a job to begin with. Finally, ACA transfers huge sums of public money to capitalists, who are required to use only a small part of it to pay for care.

Contrast this to a potentially revolutionary reform like Medicare for All. Under Medicare for All, capitalists would be paying, rather than getting paid. Because everyone would be getting the same quality of care, such a program would forge solidarity, rather than division, among working people. No one would be denied care for any reason, including lack of a job—especially important since this would dramatically increase workers’ ability to strike. The goal of this type of reform is to liberate the many from the yoke of an expensive and unfair system, not to ensure insurance companies keep making profits. Further, it represents a major step toward bringing a large industry under public control and administration.

Medicare for All is certainly a better system than ACA, but is it really a “potentially revolutionary” reform? The answer depends on the second difference between liberal or social democratic reformism and revolutionary reformism: how we fight.

Whether intentionally or not, the approach of liberal and social democratic reformists tends to be elitist. It identifies politicians and influential media or businesspeople as the agents of change, and thus has an interest in maximizing their power and flexibility. One important way of doing that is by demobilizing working people—those who ostensibly stand to benefit from the reforms. Liberal reformists often demobilize people by declining to involve them in the process of struggling for reforms in any meaningful way and by constantly telling them to tamp down their expectations (usually under the guise of “being realistic”). Instead, liberal reformist activists typically look for a small number of politicians, capitalists, or celebrities they believe they can influence, and try to get them to champion their cause. As Peter Camejo puts it, because liberal activists “have confidence that the system basically works, the only problem is to find members of the ruling class who are responsive.”

But there is another way to fight for reforms. Rather than appeal to a few kind-hearted members of the elite, socialists could work to create a situation where the reform becomes unavoidable because an organized mass of people becomes capable of significantly disrupting “business as usual.” While this approach does not exclude tactics like supporting specific politicians or legislation, it identifies the working class as the agent of change and it seeks to organize them to lead struggles on their own behalf. Not only does it seek reforms that would increase workers’ power vis-a-vis capital, it seeks them in a way that unites and organizes working people in the process and makes them confident in their ability to push for even more.

In this framework, development of the working class’s ability to self-organize is as important as the reform itself. In a successful political revolution, the process of working people organizing for their own interests would need to continue even if a large number of socialist leaders were elected to office.

The distinction between liberal reformism and revolutionary reformism represents not only a difference in organizing strategies in the present, but gets at the heart of what a political revolution in the United States would look like. In periods of low class consciousness, socialists should fight principally for economic demands masses of people need, can easily understand, and could unite them as a class. However, we also organize towards periods of elevated class struggle, when working-class people become more aware of the connection between their immediate needs and the ways in which the structure of the state makes realizing those needs impossible. In such a period, it makes sense to advance demands to change the structures of the state itself, not just policy outcomes.

The state is always involved in class conflict, whether actively or passively, because it sets the legal terms and norms through which that conflict is conducted. In Miliband’s formulation, in capitalist democracies the state has “relative autonomy” from capital; it acts on behalf, but not always at the behest of capitalists. That means it sometimes enacts reforms like Social Security or banking regulations that are contrary to the immediate interests of certain sectors of the capitalist class. In doing so, however, it intervenes to maintain the system that keeps capitalists at the top of society and prevents working-class people from organizing effectively. However, this relative autonomy creates a potential opening for movements from below. Even with only partial state power, members of the organized working class and allied groups can make significant legal reforms and marshal resources to aid working-class organizing.

We don’t expect a readymade state machine we can simply seize for our own purposes. However, it is equally unrealistic to view the state as a monolithic fortress immune to the balance of power between classes in society at large. Instead, it is a potential site of class struggle. Like all forms of class struggle, this will be a messy process fraught with contradictions and setbacks. However, only with the power of the state behind it can the working class hope to win a fight against capitalists and for socialism.

A Way Forward

The level of class struggle and class consciousness is higher than it was in the 1990s and 2000s, but it is still at historically very low levels in the U.S. Our task is to encourage and connect the sporadic struggles we have seen since Trump’s election into a cohesive movement. If a political revolution along the lines described above is the goal, what can we in DSA do to achieve it?

In my view, there are three critical factors. First, rebuilding a democratic, class-conscious, and militant labor movement; second, organizing for reforms like Medicare for All; third, running and supporting candidates for office who also want to build toward a political revolution – those who view themselves as tribunes for a broader working-class movement, rather than viewing the movement as a way to advance their political careers.

Although Bernie Sanders will not be able to enact a political revolution on his own, it is critical that DSA support him if and when he decides to run for president in 2020. The same forces that could propel him to victory are also those that might later unify these three currents into a cohesive movement for political revolution.

To have any hope of a political revolution, we must dramatically increase the level of working-class organization and join the labor movement at the hip with the socialist movement. That means winning existing workplace leaders to democratic socialism, and it means encouraging members with the ability to do so to embed themselves in strategic industries (i.e. education, healthcare, logistics, communications, and manufacturing, etc.) with an eye toward workplace organizing.

We must also continue to push for Medicare for All and aspire to develop additional campaigns for big material demands relevant to the masses of working people in this country. We should encourage chapters to continue to tie the national campaign for Medicare for All to specific local fights. To build toward a political revolution, however, DSA organizers should focus primarily on bringing masses of people into the fight instead of relying on politicking and lobbying.

In the electoral arena, we should always remember that our elected officials will remain isolated in government and confront significant barriers to implementing ambitious policies. To the extent they are able to influence legislation, elected officials should focus on policies that would increase democracy, remove barriers to workplace and popular organizing, and align with our organizational campaigns.

One thing we already see happening, and which DSAers should continue encourage, is the emergence of self-identified “democratic socialist” voters. Given that most DSA candidates will likely run as socialists on Democratic ballot lines in the near future, one important way of fostering this identity is by developing a national platform that enjoys widespread support in DSA and that we ask candidates to agree with. Such a platform should be brief and easy to understand. It should focus on nationally-determined organizational priorities like Medicare for All and expanded labor organizing, as well as two or three other issues that fit the framework I have already described. Our demands should be material, specific, and concrete. One reason the Medicare for All campaign resonates widely is that DSA has defined what this would mean in practice via its “five principles.” Any demand we make should be this specific so that opportunistic politicians can’t seize upon popular slogans while draining them of their content. By defining what a democratic socialist is in concrete terms, we will begin to create a category of voter who identifies with us and who then has the potential to be turned from a voter into an organizer.

Given the constraints they will face as policymakers, we should work to ensure elected officials use their offices to serve as community organizers for socialism. It is in this realm that we have the chance to most directly prefigure what a new kind of democratic state could look like. By using elected office to establish independent grassroots assemblies and community political organizations; by engaging in substantive, rather than symbolic, consultation with community members; by refusing to take money or counsel from capitalists; and by providing resources and organizing space to socialist organizers, socialist elected officials could provide crucial assistance to the project of transforming the state.

While we are quite far from having a critical mass of elected officials committed to this vision, we should set our expectations for elected officials now. If DSA-backed officials are unwilling to use their offices in this fashion, we should decline to actively support their reelection.

About Bernie

In my view, DSA should devote significant organizational resources to support Bernie Sanders should he decide to run for president again in 2020. A new Sanders campaign would provide a crucial opportunity to build and unite the forces we need to carry through a political revolution in the U.S. This is not because Bernie is some kind of savior, but because his campaign will have to activate and harness these forces to win office and to implement even the most moderate aspects of his program. Our role in such a campaign would be to help connect the various aspects of Bernie’s support base and expose them to democratic socialist ideas.

Typically, supporters of the winning presidential campaign demobilize while opponents mobilize into opposition. This dynamic is often encouraged by the newly elected administration itself. In case of a Sanders presidency, our most critical task would be to break this pattern and ensure that the working-class coalition required to elect him remains an organized and active force in support of his agenda.

We must do this whether a President Sanders wants it or not. A Sanders presidency would immediately face enormous obstacles. We can count on neither major party to cooperate in enacting any of the major reforms he has proposed. However, even if it fails, how his presidency plays out is extremely important for the prospect of a political revolution in our lifetime. If Sanders fails the way liberal reformists like Obama failed—scorning, ignoring, or insulting the people who put him into office while addressing them as passive observers of the political process—then the idea of political revolution will be discredited in the eyes of millions of people. In that case we might have to wait another generation before a similar confluence of forces and ideas gains traction among a sufficient number of people.

On the other hand, if masses of people organize to demand and fight for reforms but find their efforts blocked by the forces of capital, then the working-class base that elected Sanders will react very differently. We know that increased class consciousness often follows as a result of collective action. If they are active participants in the struggle for reforms, rather than blaming Sanders for not doing enough they will locate the true source of the problem: capitalists and their representatives in the state.

Once they see that even the combined efforts of the president and a mobilized base of average people cannot achieve sufficient change in the current state, a growing number of people could become receptive to the notion that a wide-ranging political revolution is the way forward. If that is the case, we will then have a working class base that is organized around common demands, experienced through a common struggle, and cognizant of the fact that the changes we need cannot be carried out under the current political order. In other words, we will have the social basis for a party and movement of the type Miliband envisions.

For the foreseeable future, the most realistic path to achieving a substantive political revolution in the U.S. is to unite and organize key elements of the social groups that were mobilized by Sanders’ 2016 campaign, the disastrous Trump administration, and a potential 2020 Sanders campaign. Because of our organizational experience and our socialist perspective, DSA has a key role to play in this process. Powerful forces are ranged against us, and even with all the right conditions we could still fail. However, we owe it to ourselves and to humanity to push as hard as we can in the direction of this most plausible scenario for the political revolution.