It’s been an astonishing year for the US left. Issues that mainstream politicians would have declared “off the table” just 12 months ago — free public higher education, universal health care, the $15 minimum wage, a national ban on fracking — are now acceptable topics for public discussion. A US politician who declared himself a socialist won more than 12 million votes, and even dared to advocate equitable treatment for Palestinians.
Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has accomplished more than most of us could have imagined a year ago. But what happens now that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are almost certain to be our “choices” in the fall?
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Once an election has passed, only a small number of committed people remain excited by long-range electoral projects.
Some of the millions energized by Sanders’ primary bid will come out to work for Trump’s defeat, others will campaign for progressive congressional candidates and still others will use the election season to build for a third party. The Sanders campaign itself seems focused on pushing reforms at the Democratic convention in July. These may all be worthwhile activities, but the fact is that election periods have an expiration date: Once an election has passed, only a small number of committed people remain excited by long-range electoral projects.
The establishment politicians and the billionaires are expecting — and counting on — demoralization and a falloff of political activism after November. But a return to “politics as usual” isn’t inevitable. History suggests a very different possibility.
After the Political Struggle
More than 100 years ago, the Polish-German revolutionary and economist Rosa Luxemburg explained that real political change doesn’t come through political action alone; it requires what she called “the interaction of the political and the economic struggle.”
“Every great political mass action, after it has attained its political highest point,” Luxemburg wrote in 1906,
breaks up into a mass of economic strikes.… With the spreading, clarifying and involution of the political struggle, the economic struggle not only does not recede, but extends, organizes and becomes involved in equal measure. Between the two there is the most complete reciprocal action.
Every new onset and every fresh victory of the political struggle is transformed into a powerful impetus for the economic struggle, extending at the same time its external possibilities and intensifying the inner urge of the workers to better their position and their desire to struggle. After every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle shoot forth.
We may prefer less flowery language today, and “grassroots struggle” would be a more meaningful expression for us now than “economic struggle.” Luxemburg was writing about the series of strikes around wage and workplace issues that culminated in the 1905 Russian Revolution; the equivalent struggles in the United States today arise from social and environmental issues, as well as economic demands. But her basic analysis remains as relevant as ever.
The emergence of the Sanders campaign itself follows the pattern Luxemburg identified.
Initial activist responses to the 2008 economic crisis took the form of local grassroots struggles — the workers’ takeover at Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors in December 2008, for example, and the occupation of Wisconsin’s capitol building by unionists and their supporters in February 2011. The first large-scale political response came with Occupy Wall Street in the fall of 2011. Occupy receded quickly, to the great relief of the billionaires and their media spokespeople, but it left behind Luxemburg’s “fructifying deposit.”
Just as the Sanders campaign didn’t arise in a vacuum, there’s no reason to expect it will leave a vacuum behind it.
In the years since 2011, previously existing grassroots movements have gained a fresh vitality, and other new movements have sprung up. This general upswing in organizing is apparent in actions by the immigrant youths known as Dreamers; in Black Lives Matter; in protests against fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline; and in the emergence of Fight for $15. And the list goes on.
It was in this era of increased social unrest and grassroots organizing that the Sanders candidacy emerged, drawing its strength specifically from the economic justice movements within this larger activist landscape. And just as the Sanders campaign didn’t arise in a vacuum, there’s no reason to expect it will leave a vacuum behind it.
The “Powerful Impetus”
Grassroots struggles didn’t disappear during the primary season, and neither did the issues that motivated them; we still need to fight for economic justice, for environmental justice and for an end to all forms of discrimination. The current struggles will continue and others will arise, assuming new and unpredictable forms — possibly including a revived and more militant labor movement, if the April-May strike by Verizon workers is any indication.
It’s possible to think big, to be radical and demand what we want, not what we think our rulers might give.
But the grassroots struggles won’t be the same as they were before the campaign.
We can, of course, expect that they will benefit from the addition of people drawn into activism by Sanders’ message — potentially millions of new activists — but beyond that, both existing and emerging movements will be strengthened by the past year’s broadening and deepening of political consciousness. One advance is a widespread realization that it’s possible to think big, to be radical and demand what we want, not what we think our rulers might give. While the commentators touted incrementalism, Sanders won votes by insisting that requests for a half loaf only get us crumbs.
Another of the campaign’s effects is a growing understanding that we are not alone, that we have many potential allies, despite persistent efforts by the politicians and the corporate media to divide us. If Sanders’ massive rallies did nothing else, they brought activists from different struggles together in the same room, highlighting prospects for greater unity, mutual support and cooperation among the movements.
The old Wobbly slogan is as timely as it was in the early 20th century: “Don’t mourn, organize!”
It’s true that the likely influx of new, inexperienced supporters will mean new problems for grassroots organizers; longtime activists will have to exercise patience in orienting and educating the incoming recruits. But these are the problems we want to have. Our overriding concern now should be making sure that Sanders’ voters don’t sink back into apathy, that they stay in the struggle. The old Wobbly slogan is as timely as it was in the early 20th century: “Don’t mourn, organize!“