Bernie Sanders Started the Revolution. The Rest Is Up to Us.

Sanders ended his presidential campaign, but he’s laid a path to take on corporate power and win democratic socialism.

Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht

Though Sanders may be out, the political revolution is far from over. (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders is no longer a can­di­date for pres­i­dent. It’s a dev­as­tat­ing moment for his sup­port­ers and for all those who under­stand that the sta­tus quo in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and soci­ety is not ten­able. But we should pause, in our grief, to reflect on what has come from his cam­paign. We now have a once-in-a-life­time open­ing, pried open by the Sanders cam­paign and the orga­niz­ing it helped inspire, to reshape the world for the many, not the few. Giv­en the impend­ing real­i­ty of cat­a­stroph­ic cli­mate change, we have no choice but to take advan­tage of this open­ing if we don’t want to live out our days in a dystopi­an nightmare.

As socialists, in the pursuit of an elevated human condition alongside close friends and total strangers, we have discovered a feeling of connectedness to humanity that’s nearly impossible to find elsewhere in our alienated society.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, lib­er­als are not tak­ing the threats we face seri­ous­ly enough. They’ve moved heav­en and earth to defeat the Sanders cam­paign while get­ting caught up in sideshow spec­ta­cles in recent years—Rus­si­a­gate, impeach­ment—rather than work­ing to put for­ward an alter­na­tive to the grind­ing mis­ery of life in Amer­i­ca under cap­i­tal­ism. Sanders, mean­while, showed that we aren’t doomed to live in a world of inequal­i­ty, oppres­sion and mis­ery — that mil­lions of peo­ple real­ly are ready for a cri­tique of the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sys­tem we live under, and eager to cre­ate a soci­ety that’s just, sus­tain­able, and gives every­one a chance to flour­ish as human beings.

Peo­ple often quote Wern­er Sombart’s remark in 1906 about the pre­pon­der­ance of roast beef and apple pie,” the incred­i­ble abun­dance that the U.S. work­ing class sup­pos­ed­ly has access to, as a way to explain why social­ism has not tak­en root here the way that it has else­where. Less quot­ed, how­ev­er, is the end­ing of the 1906 book from which that line comes. Som­bart, hav­ing giv­en his full expla­na­tion for socialism’s absence in the U.S., has this to say:

These are rough­ly the rea­sons why there is no Social­ism in the Unit­ed States. How­ev­er, my present opin­ion is as fol­lows: all the fac­tors that till now have pre­vent­ed the devel­op­ment of Social­ism in the Unit­ed States are about to dis­ap­pear or to be con­vert­ed into their oppo­site, with the result that in the next gen­er­a­tion Social­ism in Amer­i­ca will very prob­a­bly expe­ri­ence the great­est pos­si­ble expan­sion of its appeal.

Over a cen­tu­ry lat­er, these words ring true. We are in a rare, per­haps brief, moment of polit­i­cal oppor­tu­ni­ty. Let’s seize it to go beyond the Bernie Sanders cam­paign and win social­ism in our time.

A Nar­row Window

The social­ist move­ment is on stronger foot­ing than it was before Sanders broke into the main­stream, and the cri­sis of coro­n­avirus has helped pop­u­lar­ize many of the kinds of mea­sures social­ists have argued for (at least for now). But there are no guar­an­tees that social­ism will remain a sub­ject of curios­i­ty or inter­est for the Amer­i­can work­ing class, much less per­me­ate the polit­i­cal cul­ture. We may in fact have a very short win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty to inter­vene and grow our move­ment. It’s our respon­si­bil­i­ty to take the baton from Sanders and run with it.

Social­ists have to take advan­tage of this oppor­tu­ni­ty as strate­gi­cal­ly as pos­si­ble. The pur­pose of social­ist pol­i­tics is to build work­ing people’s pow­er. That has to include win­ning real mate­r­i­al vic­to­ries, but we can’t cel­e­brate those vic­to­ries for long. Rest­ing on our lau­rels while cap­i­tal­ism per­sists is a recipe for the even­tu­al ero­sion of our accomplishments.

One les­son all those inspired by Sanders should take away is the urgent neces­si­ty of a class-strug­gle approach to polit­i­cal action, both in the state and out­side it. Right now, we need more can­di­dates run­ning in class-strug­gle elec­tions — cam­paigns that clar­i­fy that cap­i­tal­ists are our ene­my, raise the expec­ta­tions of the work­ing class and help build its capac­i­ty to fight beyond the elec­toral realm — and push­ing to decom­mod­i­fy basic goods in our lives like health­care, high­er edu­ca­tion and hous­ing. We need more protests and strikes, more fights against the tiny minor­i­ty in the cap­i­tal­ist class that has an active inter­est in squeez­ing as much out of every­one else as pos­si­ble while destroy­ing the plan­et we all live on, as well as an inter­est in stok­ing hatred and divi­sion through­out society.

And we need those can­di­dates and those ini­tia­tives to all meet under one roof: a social­ist orga­ni­za­tion. Not all of the peo­ple who join these fights will be social­ists, but with a strong social­ist orga­ni­za­tion, we’ll be able to pull them togeth­er to build the kind of work­ing-class strength that can trans­form the world. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) have emerged as exact­ly such an organization.

DSA mem­bers, from Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez and Rashi­da Tlaib in Con­gress to half a dozen social­ist city coun­cil mem­bers in Chica­go and beyond, have already won elec­tions up and down the bal­lot, not to men­tion play­ing key roles in the Sanders cam­paign; the group has been orga­niz­ing in the streets on a wide range of issues, includ­ing Medicare for All, afford­able hous­ing, immi­grants rights, union orga­niz­ing and sup­port, and much more. For those who want to con­tin­ue fight­ing for the polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion” that Sanders put on the map, there’s no bet­ter group to do it with than DSA.

A Strug­gle, Not a Slog

We each have one life to live. We should spend it free and hap­py. To main­tain a sys­tem that ren­ders peo­ple mis­er­able and unfree, for no oth­er rea­son than the accru­al of a huge amount of prof­its to a small num­ber of peo­ple, is a crime.

We deserve the world. And we won’t have it until cap­i­tal­ism ends.

It’s daunt­ing, this idea that social­ists must keep strug­gling through con­di­tions unfore­seen, pos­si­bly for the rest of our lives. But it’s not a slog. In fact, that strug­gle is mean­ing­ful and nour­ish­ing. And in the pur­suit of an ele­vat­ed human con­di­tion along­side close friends and total strangers, we have dis­cov­ered a feel­ing of con­nect­ed­ness to human­i­ty that’s near­ly impos­si­ble to find else­where in our alien­at­ed society.

To be a social­ist, engaged in this per­pet­u­al strug­gle, entails many frus­tra­tions and some per­son­al sac­ri­fice. But it is also enliven­ing, enrich­ing and inspir­ing. At times it can feel down­right spir­i­tu­al. In a speech deliv­ered in Can­ton, Ohio, the one that land­ed him in jail, labor orga­niz­er and five-time Social­ist pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Eugene V. Debs cap­tured this sen­ti­ment beautifully:

I have regret­ted a thou­sand times that I can do so lit­tle for the move­ment that has done so much for me. The lit­tle that I am, the lit­tle that I am hop­ing to be, I owe to the Social­ist move­ment. It has giv­en me my ideas and ideals; my prin­ci­ples and con­vic­tions, and I would not exchange one of them for all of Rockefeller’s blood­stained dollars.

It has taught me how to serve — a les­son to me of price­less val­ue. It has taught me the ecsta­sy in the hand­clasp of a com­rade. It has enabled me to hold high com­mu­nion with you, and made it pos­si­ble for me to take my place side by side with you in the great strug­gle for the bet­ter day; to mul­ti­ply myself over and over again, to thrill with a fresh-born man­hood; to feel life tru­ly worth­while; to open new avenues of vision; to spread out glo­ri­ous vis­tas; to know that I am kin to all that throbs; to be class-con­scious, and to real­ize that, regard­less of nation­al­i­ty, race, creed, col­or or sex, every man, every woman who toils, who ren­ders use­ful ser­vice, every mem­ber of the work­ing class with­out an excep­tion, is my com­rade, my broth­er and sis­ter — and that to serve them and their cause is the high­est duty of my life.

What Bernie Sanders has accom­plished in the last five years can’t be over­stat­ed. He has invit­ed hun­dreds of thou­sands, per­haps even­tu­al­ly mil­lions of peo­ple to join in the fight for a humane and free world, and to come to know through their own actions the mean­ing of solidarity.

It’s now the task of the reborn social­ist move­ment to act bold­ly, inter­vene intel­li­gent­ly, and con­tin­ue to invite peo­ple into that strug­gle, so that the poten­tial of this moment isn’t squan­dered. There has not been a bet­ter time to be a social­ist in the Unit­ed States in the last century.

There hasn’t been a more urgent time to join the social­ist move­ment, either. So join us.

Adapt­ed from Big­ger than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism by Mea­gan Day and Mic­ah Uet­richt, from Ver­so Books. Views expressed are the authors’. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

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