Society Magazine

What Hath Bernie (Ideologically) Wrought?

Posted on the 27 May 2021 by Russellarbenfox
[The online magazine Current asked me to write something about Bernie Sanders, so I did. This is a slightly longer, slightly different, and more personal version of that essay. Consider it my benediction on the first genuine passion for a presidential candidate I have ever experienced as a voting, adult citizen--that is, a benediction on my own weirdly populist/localist/communitarian take on the Bern.]

What Hath Bernie (Ideologically) Wrought?With President Biden strongly pushing for trillions of dollars in covid relief, infrastructure building, education funding, health care support, and more, the support his progressive agenda has enjoyed both among his fellow Democrats and in national polls has been seen by many as at least partly the result of Senator Bernie Sanders’s transformative runs for the presidency. The argument is that Biden, because of his reputation as pragmatic centrist and a reliable member of the Democratic party establishment, can move forward with essentially the same rather radical (and mostly quite popular!) agenda which Sanders developed in a way that Sanders himself, with his proud “democratic socialist” self-identification and his independent (though inconsistent) refusal to ever formally join the Democratic party, never could have. As The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch put it, repurposing the old saw about how President Nixon’s anti-communism made it politically possible for him to open up diplomatic relations with communist China, “Only Biden Can Go to Norway.” 

For those who view ideologies as tools, with moral principles and social theories packaged together solely for the purpose of advancing political policies, this is fine. In fact, they might even say it’s the best possible result: radical ideas becoming sufficiently normalized that someone without any attachment to the socialistic ideology through which they were articulated (which certainly describes Biden) can advance them under a different label entirely! Arguably, that's the story of all radicalism movements in American history. But for those whose commitment to their ideological preferences is great enough for them to persevere through opposition and actually shape those ideas in the first place--and obviously, for anyone who has read the stuff I write more than just once over the years, this is where I would intellectually situate myself--this kind of result may generate ambivalence.

Sanders himself is not at all ambivalent about Biden’s efforts thus far: he fully supports them and hopes to build upon them further. Among the aforementioned true believers though, or at least a few of them, this complicates Sanders’s relationship to the ideological package which he has trumpeted more successfully than any other American politician since Eugene V. Debs a century ago. If Sanders’s “democratic socialism” is the sort of thing which he can endorse as being effectively, if not entirely, advanced by an American president with no interest in socialist analysis and no intention of thoroughly democratizing wealth in America, then just what was the ideological distinction of his socialist claims in the first place?

The responses to this question range from those on the left who insist Sanders was never a true socialist anyway (and thus is a distraction), to those on the right who are delighted to paint Biden’s progressive liberalism with the same socialist accusation they’ve employed against Democrats for close to a century (and thus should be denounced). In the midst of these responses, though, there is the fact that over the years of Sanders’s presidential campaigns there have been significant increases in the number of Americans who sympathize with socialist goals, and an increase in the number of arenas—both local and national, both strictly economic and broadly cultural—within which this sympathy has been expressed. The growth of the Democratic Socialists of America—a “multi-tendency organization” with significant differences between its hundreds of chapters, an organization which has prominently benefited from Sanders’s campaigns, despite his never having joined it—is perhaps the most emblematic example, but it isn’t the only one. (As a long-time member of the DSA, my opinions here are obviously less than neutral!)

Those who insist upon a definition of socialism which preserves the historical materialism of Karl Marx—that is, that socialism must involve a collectivization of the economy, one achieved through the actions of the working class (making use of captured state power, at least under most construals of Marxism)—the lack of ideological rigor in these various calls for “equity” or “fairness” or “justice” may be annoying, to say the least. As part of a long, thoughtful essay, full of genuine (if often back-handed) praise of the Democratic Socialists of America, author Frederik deBoer expressed doubt that “the average DSA member could give you a coherent definition of what ‘democratic socialism’ even is,” but also reflected that while the those who identity with socialist causes today haven’t accomplished much on their own terms, “neither has Black Lives Matter, or MeToo, or any group (or individual) which has participated in this confused and substance-free ‘social revolution’ we are supposedly living in.” This is, to be sure, a rather cynical take on political developments of the past half-decade—yet it also touches on something vital, which makes deBoer's insight relevant. Specifically, it points us toward the question of how seriously we should take the likely connection between Sanders’s radical insistence (given the realities of American politics) upon the validity of “democratic socialism,” whatever its ideological inconsistencies, and the broad emergence of groups and causes which, in their own sometimes anarchic ways, similarly embraced a democratizing aim. (Yes, it's easy to point, as counter-evidence, to conflicts between Sanders and Black Lives Matter protesters on the campaign trail, or the serious limits in African-American support for his candidacy, or the declarations of right-wing pundits that Sanders's radicalism had nothing to do with--or at least has "lost control of"--the anti-establishment energy of 2020. But all that is marginal, I think, when compared to the indisputable connection which BLM and other radical leaders and thinkers and activist organizations posited between what Sanders represented and was trying to do, and what they want to see happen.)

The scientific socialism of Marx presented the alienating effects of concentrated socio-economic power as something that could only be smashed through revolutionary action. Later thinkers saw that this revolutionary logic did not reflect the actual socio-economic developments of the industrial world, and argued that socialism could be build electorally in the midst of the marketplace—which is what gave us “democratic socialism” (and later “social democracy,” such as is well represented by countries like Norway, and by the Sanders—and arguably the current Biden!—platform).

The late sociologist Erik Olin Wright, however, suggested that socialists should see the obstacles to the democratization of wealth as something that can be “eroded” as well as smashed or tamed. How? By building and advocating for alternatives “interstitially.” Wright acknowledged that focusing on the many different ways in which social goods can be produced and distributed besides the capitalist marketplace—including “within the intimate relations of families; through community-based networks and organizations; by cooperatives owned and governed democratically by their members; though nonprofit market-oriented organizations; through peer-to-peer networks engaged in collaborative production processes,” etc.—would not be sufficient to accomplish the aims of socialism; instead “we need a way of linking the bottom-up, society-centered strategic vision of anarchism with the top-down, state-centered strategic logic of social democracy.” Nonetheless, the relationship between the two are vital; writing in an article in Jacobin published before his death, he argued that it is through such open-ended and organic associational efforts that we can “get on with the business of building a new world—not from the ashes of the old, but within the interstices of the old.”

The democratic socialist banner which Sanders has long inspired people with is obviously far more on the social democratic side than the anarchic one. And yet, it would also be simply perverse to claim that Sanders’s constant emphasis on income inequality and worker disempowerment had no relevance whatsoever to the explosion of interest of late in diverse radical movements for recognition and justice, or—especially during the pandemic—cooperative efforts to provide mutual aid. Whether obvious or not, that relevance, it seems to me, always eventually emerges. Michael Harrington, the founder of Democratic Socialists of America, towards the end of a decades-long engagement with socialist debates, concluded in his final book that socialism had to move towards a “decentralized conception of its goal”—going so far as to ask if a “socialist republicanism” was possible (Socialism: Past and Future, p. 277). (And if an organizer like Harrington doesn't persuade you, maybe the late in life discovery of decentralization by the Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen can.) Perhaps looking back historically over the Sanders’s ideological impact on the 2010s will similarly oblige us to recognize that his greatest accomplishment wasn’t in serving as the fulcrum by which the mainstream of the Democratic party was made comfortable with certain (re-named!) democratic socialist ideas, but as having helped bring into the mainstream a fruitful, disparate mess of radicalisms, all of which are busy promoting their own alternative democratizing visions.

What Hath Bernie (Ideologically) Wrought?

In his essay “Bernie Sanders’s Five-Year War,” a detailed but also touching retrospective on what Sanders meant for many of those of us on the left, Matt Karp observed: “If Bernie Sanders was not fated to be the Abraham Lincoln of the twenty-first-century left, winning a political revolution under his own banner, he may well be something like our John Quincy Adams—the ‘Old Man Eloquent’ whose passionate broadsides against the Slave Power in the 1830s and 1840s inspired the radicals who toppled it a generation later.” This is, I think, is correct. I firmly supported Sanders, but probably more because I could see in his campaigns an ideological richness, a genuine multiplicity of possibilities--both  egalitarian and localist as well as even conservative or Christian--that extended far beyond the neoliberal homo economicus which remains too often our default today, than because I wanted him to win. That is, I wanted his ideas to win, and that means for his ideological construct to expand and multiply and flourish. To see ideological constructs such as that which Sanders long employed (and still does!) as static and linear is to perhaps misunderstand the organic character of ideological constructs in general. Yes, Bernie Sanders failed to win the presidency--but still, he didn’t fail to fertilize, with his words and actions, long moribund ideas in America. The diverse, disparate ideological growths in his wake will likely be with us for a while yet. Or so I hope, anyway.

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