The Left must take advantage of Bernie campaign’s use of “socialism”

Since Bernie dropped out, we’re left with the same hellhole American political landscape. But now, socialism isn’t a bad word. As communists, we can embrace that leftward rhetorical shift and continue shifting it.

Christian Patterson
2020-04-24
Underground Mall

Noam Chomsky claimed in an interview with Mehdi Hasan that it was a mistake for Bernie Sanders to identify himself as a socialist. Chomsky makes the classic claim – “Bernie is not a socialist” – he advocates for basic social democratic policies that exist in most capitalist economies. So in calling himself a socialist, the main thing he did was stigmatize people who may otherwise support him but were scared off by the S word.

I am of several minds about this. On one level, there’s the question of whether Bernie Sanders is a socialist or not. And then the other level is the question of whether or not Bernie Sanders should have called himself a socialist or not. There’s also the question of, whether right or wrong, Sanders did use “socialism” liberally, and that is a cultural and social element that we can, and should, maximize.

Before, I’ve argued online that Bernie Sanders’s campaign wasn’t really socialist. And, from a theoretical, zoomed-out perspective, I still stand by that. He doesn’t advocate for the abolition of capitalism, and to be more specific, the abolition of private property and the wage-employment system. Even if you approach the political-economy from an extremely meek and incremental, but you still have those eventual goals, I consider that socialist.

In that sense, Sanders doesn’t reach that metric. But, in a more practical perspective, I understand the argument for calling Sanders a socialist, because he advocates a left-wing paradigmatic shift away from the capitalist orthodoxy, which is something that hasn’t happened since FDR. Was FDR a socialist? No, but he presented a paradigmatic shift towards social programs, which is socialistic. So while, if I’m being precise, I may not call Sanders a socialist, I also don’t have an issue with him being called such.

The second issue then, is did calling himself a socialist hurt Bernie Sanders? I think it may have cost him some votes, if I’m being honest. My original thought was, “no, Bernie Sanders isn’t a socialist, but yes, I want him to win, and he has a better chance of winning because he isn’t a socialist.”

But, I greatly overestimated the political literacy of most Americans, and I think most Americans just take what people call themselves on face value. My idea, that he is only able to run successfully, would only be true if he never called himself a socialist.

So, my conclusion is that Chomsky was probably right: Sanders could have won over a few more votes if he never called himself a socialist. I could also be totally wrong about that, because the democratic establishment knows what Sanders represents, no matter what he calls himself, and would have still sabotaged him.

But, the time has come and past, and Sanders has already dropped out. Because of this, we can have a different perspective about Sanders’ candidacy. He’s not going to win, so we can look at the impacts of that fact, and the campaign in general, and find a silver lining. Even though Bernie lost, I’d say the most important and useful effect of the Sanders campaign was normalizing socialism.

Paradoxically, the thing that may have cost him some votes (evoking socialism) also may have helped build the movement that cost him those votes.

I’ve heard and seen several people make the comparison that Barry Goldwater lost his election bigly to Lyndon Johnson, and yet, Goldwater’s campaign platform became the republican party platform in the years to follow. Goldwater revitalized the conservative movement in America, and set the stage for the direction of the republican party. The comparison is that Bernie Sanders will be to the democratic party as Goldwater was to the republican party.

On one hand, I think this is probably true, if only by simple demographic shifts and old people dying off. Sometimes people will respond to that with “the old conservative assholes will just be replaced by new conservative assholes”. In a way, that’s true, but more accurately, I think generations tend to project a similar political position that then warps over time. For example, Joe Biden and Donald Trump both signify the logical conclusion of the dying, melty brain remnants of boomers. It’s not that hippie boomers became conservative, it’s that the hippie boomer ideology warped throughout history to be the bastardized establishment husk it is now.

On the other hand, I think Sanders informing the democratic platform in the future will only be true if history keeps plodding at the glacial, neoliberal pace that it’s been plodding along for a long ass time. I don’t have faith that the American political-economic structure will maintain that course. The US is hanging by a thread above a cliff.

In this post, I brought in a lot of threads in a short period of time, so let me try to tie it together.

I personally don’t consider Bernie Sanders’ presidential platform socialist, but I also don’t think it matters, especially now. He will never be president, so it will never manifest. What will and is manifesting, however, is that he did call himself a socialist, and consequently, socialism (even if just the word socialism) has penetrated everyday politics.

The likely consequence of this is if history continues plodding down this path, the democratic party will likely become a social democratic party in the not-so-distant future.

However, the real take away from all of this is: in this moment, socialism has more momentum than ever because of its usage by Bernie Sanders. Socialism *poofed* into mainstream discourse, and we need to maximize that exposure as much as possible.

The Jacobin left / social democrats will have much more power in the future, as those ideas likely become more in vogue. But I guarantee that many of those people will become status quo warriors when that happens. For all the big talk from this crowd, many won’t have the intention of going further left than Bernie Sanders, and they will become the status quo establishment themselves. This isn’t a criticism, it’s the natural, logical conclusion from politics throughout history.

This means that we need to start pushing the social democrats further and further left. We need to preemptively become the left-wing flank to the social democrats, in the same way social democrats are the left-wing flank to the neoliberals. That doesn’t mean we should be in conflict with them, or antagonize them.

Instead, I advocate for communists to join DSA. If someone’s opposed to that, I can’t and won’t blame them. Join any party, or do any political action you support. But, I think pushing the DSA left, while they attempt to push the democrats left, is the most pragmatic way to push the American left even further left.

While the social democrats are on track to become the paradigm setters of the democratic party in the future, I’m not convinced the tenuous U$A will remain on its current track for long enough for that to happen. I think social democrats are banking on becoming the next mainstream of the democratic party. They advocate for working within democratic apparatuses, and then using the party as a tool. But what if the political landscape as we know shatters by then? What then?

Communists better understand, and are bracing for, and will have more power to fill an empty power vacuum an imminent collapse. So let’s build up the communist movement before collapse happens. And the whole time, we can thank Bernie for popularizing socialism, and consequently, making a new generation communist-curious.

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