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Beyond Bernie: The Socialist Challenge Today

Bernie Sanders, who over the last five years has played an enormous part in altering the parameters of political discourse in the United States, is no longer running for president. But the fight for justice, equality, and human dignity, and for policies like universal healthcare and education, goes on. As Bernie himself frequently notes, progressive change always comes from the “bottom up.” The struggle ahead requires the fostering of a mass, multi-racial, multi-generational, working-class movement—unafraid to articulate a vision of a just and peaceful future. It also requires a sober assessment of the Sanders campaign(s), and open debate about which strategies will be most effective in accomplishing the aims of the left—ranging from immediate relief for the most vulnerable to systemic transformation—in a time of intense crisis.

The newly updated and expanded US edition of The Socialist Challenge Today: Syriza, Corbyn, Sanders offers a contribution to that important debate. This short book situates the Sanders campaign in global context and provides a lucid introduction to the lessons US leftists can learn from the left's recent experience in other countries. It is also a perfect entry point for readers interested in thinking about socialist strategy, electoral politics, and the state more generally. In the midst of intertwined global health and economic crises, this cogent text offers socialists and other leftists an essential basis for reflection, assessment, and discussion about where to go from here.

Here, we present an excerpt from the book:
 

In 1917, not only those parties engaged in insurrectionary revolution but even those committed to gradual reform spoke of eventually transcending capitalism. Half a century later, social democrats explicitly came to define their political goals as compatible with a welfare-state variety of capitalism, and well before the end of the century, even many who had formerly embraced the legacy of 1917 would join them in this. Yet this shift occurred just as the universalization of neoliberalism rendered threadbare any notion of distinct varieties of capitalism. The realism without imagination of the Clinton-Blair “Third Way” was shown to ultimately lack realism as well as imagination.

However reactionary the era of neoliberal globalization has been, it has seemed to confirm the continuing revolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie, at least in terms of creating “a world after its own image.” Nevertheless, the financialized form of capitalism that greased the wheels not only of global investment and trade, but also of globally integrated production and consumption, was clearly crisis-prone. The first global capitalist crisis of the twenty-first century, which began with the financial crash of 2007–08, was rooted in the contradictions attending the new credit-dependent forms through which, amid stagnant wages in the neoliberal era, mass consumption was sustained. Yet, in sharp contrast to the two great capitalist crises of the twentieth century in the 1930s and 1970s, as the crisis has unfolded over the past decade, it did not lead to a replacement of the regime of accumulation that gave rise to it. Unlike the move away from the Gold Standard regime in the 1930s and the abandonment of the Bretton Woods regime in the 1970s, the neoliberal regime persisted after 2008. Neoliberalism endured through the rescue and reproduction of financial capital, the reassertion of austerity in fiscal policy, the dependence on monetary policy for stimulus, and the further aggravation of income and wealth inequality—all of which were made possible by the continuing economic and political weaknesses of working classes everywhere through this period.

We are now at a new conjuncture. It is a very different conjuncture than the one that led to the perception that neoliberalism, at the height of its embrace by Third Way social democracy, was “the most successful ideology in world history.”  While neoliberal economic practices have been reproduced—as has the US empire’s centrality in global capitalism—neoliberalism’s legitimacy has been undermined. The aftershocks of the US financial crash of 2008 reverberated across the eurozone and the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), deepening the multiple economic, ecological, and migratory crises that characterized the following decade. At the same time, neoliberalism’s ideological delegitimization has enveloped many political institutions that have sustained its practices, from those of the European Union to political parties at the national level. What makes the current moment so dangerous is the space this ideological crisis has opened for the far right, with its ultranationalist, racist, sexist, and homophobic overtones, to capture popular frustrations with liberal democratic politics.

The recent delegitimization of neoliberalism has restored some credibility to the radical socialist case for transcending capitalism as necessary to realize the collective, democratic, egalitarian, and ecological aspirations of humanity. It has spawned a growing sense that capitalism can no longer continue to be bracketed when protesting the multiple oppressions and ecological threats of our time. And as austerity took top billing over free trade, the spirit of anti-neoliberal protest also shifted: whereas capitalist globalization had defined the primary focus of oppositional forces in the first decade of the new millennium, the second decade opened with the Occupy movement in the US and the Indignados anti-austerity movement in Spain dramatically highlighting capitalism’s gross class inequalities. Yet with this shift, the insurrectionary flavor of protest without revolutionary effect quickly revealed the limits of forever standing outside the state.

The marked turn on the left from protest to politics that has come to characterize the new conjuncture, as opposition to capitalist globalization shifted from the streets to the state theaters of neoliberal practice, was in good part what the election of Syriza in Greece and the sudden emergence of Podemos in Spain signified. Corbyn’s election as leader of the British Labour Party attracted hundreds of thousands of new members with the promise to sustain activism rather than undermine it. And even in the US, the heartland of the global capitalist empire, only a short bridge spanned Occupy and Sanders’s left populist promise for a political revolution “to create a government which represents all Americans, and not just the 1 percent.” This was reflected in polls indicating that half of all millennials did not support “capitalism” and held a positive view of “socialism”—whatever they thought those terms meant.

This transition from protest to politics has been remarkably class-oriented in terms of addressing inequality in income and wealth distribution, as well as in economic and political power relations. Yet as Andrew Murray has so incisively noted, “this new politics is generally more class-focused than class-rooted. While it places issues of social inequality and global economic power front and center, it neither emerges from the organic institutions of the class-in-itself nor advances the socialist perspective of the class-for-itself.” The disappointment that trade unions so often experience with the center-left parties whose base they form actually reflects the loss of these parties’ class focus once they are elected as they turn to govern in the “national interest.” But the larger strategic question pertains to how a class-rooted politics—in the original sense of the connection between working class formation and political organization—could become transformative today. What could the manifold changes in class composition and identity, as well as the limits and failures of traditional working-class parties and unions in light of these changes, mean in terms of new organizational forms and practices? And what would a class-focused and class-rooted transformation of the capitalist state entail?

While leaders like Tsipras, Iglesias, Corbyn, and Sanders all have pointed beyond Third Way social democracy, their capacity to move beyond it is another matter. This partly has to do with their personal limitations, but much more with the specific limitations of each of their political parties, including even the strongest left currents within them, and their failure to prepare adequately for the challenge of transforming state apparatuses. The experience of the government in Greece highlights this shortcoming, as well as how difficult it is for governments to extricate their state apparatuses from transnational ones.

All these factors compel a fundamental rethink of the relationship between class, party, and state transformation. If Bolshevik revolutionary discourse seems archaic a hundred years after 1917, it is not just because the legacy of its historic demonstration that revolution was possible has faded. It is also because the impossibility of an insurrectionary path to power in states deeply embedded in capitalist societies—as Gramsci clearly explained so soon after 1917—remains as real as ever. What this means for socialists, however, as we face up to a long war of position in the twenty-first century, is not only the recognition of the limitations of twentieth-century Leninism, let alone Soviet state practices. It also entails an appreciation of what inspired the communist break with social democracy in the first place—what Jodi Dean admires today as communism’s expression of the “collective desire for collectivity.” It also requires a commitment to working-class internationalism as opposed to national class harmony between capital and labor, an orientation to class formation and organization in the struggle against capital, and a recognition that socialist economic planning requires taking capital away from capital.

Democratic socialism in the twenty-first century must encompass all that was positive about the communist vision even while negating twentieth-century Communist Party and state practices by virtue of an indelible commitment to developing democratic capacities to the end of democratizing the economy and the state. This is crucial for retaining a clear distinction between democratic socialism and social democracy. Indeed, given the latter’s own history of incorporation into the capitalist state and embrace of neoliberalism, engaging successfully in the long war of position in the twenty-first century will above all require discovering how to avoid the social democratization of those now committed to transcending capitalism. This is the central challenge for socialists today.

For further reading, continue to Socialism 101: A Reading List

  • The Socialist Challenge Today

    A newly updated and expanded primer for 21st-century democratic socialists from acclaimed scholars Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, with Stephen Maher.

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