For the first time in many years, the presidential elections are interesting — and we have socialism to thank for that.
Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders’ left-wing message — denouncing corporate greed and widening inequality, and calling for a fairer, more just society — is engaging a whole section of people who wouldn’t have cared so passionately about an ordinary race between an ordinary Republican and Democrat.
The Sanders campaign has drawn attention to a significant audience that is moving toward left ideas. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll last November, some 56 percent of Democratic voters questioned said they felt positive about socialism as a governing philosophy, versus 29 percent who had a negative view.
Even the mainstream media are crediting Sanders with getting people interested in the election process — an admission that the usual stuff on offer during U.S. elections is completely out of step with what many voters are thinking about.
But while the media seem to think that Sanders’ critique of Corporate America has never been heard before, there were plenty of signs that people were dissatisfied with business-as-usual politics.
Take the results of this opinion poll conducted during the Occupy Wall Street movement, which started in New York City’s Zuccotti Park in September 2011 and spread to cities across the country in a matter of weeks. The survey found that 59 percent of adults either completely or mostly agreed with the protesters, and just 31 percent mostly completely disagreed.
Remember, this was a movement that challenged the greed of the 1 Percent and the corruption of the political system that served only the rich — and that called for the 99 Percent to rise up against them. Three in five adults thought that sounded right to them.
More signs of the brewing anger about declining working-class living standards and support for those challenging the system came in the form of a poll two months before Chicago teachers went on a one-day strike in April — three times as many Chicagoans said they trusted the teachers’ union on education issues than budget-cutting Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
So Sanders didn’t invent the critical attitude toward corporate power and the two-party system. But he helped give expression to it — and in the last place most people would look for it: the U.S. presidential elections.
With the Democratic primaries coming to an end and Sanders all but certain to fall short of defeating Hillary Clinton, the point now is to talk about what will come next for building a socialist movement in the U.S. — one that keeps growing stronger after the November elections.
Sanders regularly talks about the importance of mass participation in his campaign. For example, he raised an incredible amount of money, largely from people who went in small donations, not because they could afford it, but because believe in what his campaign stands for.
That stands in stark comparison to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, where contributions by wealthy donors and corporate interests — the votes that really matter to her and the Democratic Party — dwarf the contributions of ordinary citizens.
Campaigns like Clinton’s don’t encourage the participation of ordinary people. For most politicians, the masses of voters aren’t a consideration at all, except briefly at election time.
The vision of “democracy” for even the most liberal political figures is that voters elect them because of their campaign positions, and then they work in the interests of the people the rest of the time. The vast majority of the population has nothing to do with the everyday workings of government — that’s left up to the “experts” and “officials.”
The American socialist Eugene Debs — who ran five times for president as a candidate of the Socialist Party (SP) — took a completely different attitude toward the relationship between workers, elected officials and democracy. He said in 1905:
Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again.
Workers have to lead themselves, Debs argued — and not only at election time every two, four or six years, but in the everyday struggles against the powers that be:
I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves. You do not need the capitalist. He could not exist an instant without you. You would just begin to live without him. You do everything and he has everything; and some of you imagine that if it were not for him, you would have no work. As a matter of fact, he does not employ you at all; you employ him to take from you what you produce, and he faithfully sticks to his task. If you can stand it, he can: and if you don’t change this relation, I am sure he won’t. You make the automobile, he rides in it. If it were not for you, he would walk; and if it were not for him, you would ride.
The ultimate goal for socialists who believe in the type of socialism Debs was talking about — socialism from below, or as Marx described it, the self-emancipation of the working class — is workers’ power, with working people running all aspects of society, both political and economic.
Debs saw election campaigns not as an opportunity for individuals to win office and then pass legislation in the interest of workers — as many of his fellow SP members did — but as an opportunity to spread the ideas of socialism and convince workers of their own ability to run society.
This vision of socialism goes beyond the voting booth and rousing class war speeches — and into the everyday fightbacks that strengthen the working-class struggle and workers’ confidence to act, even to the extent of creating a new world. This is the vision of a socialist movement takes place every day — in workplaces, on campuses, in neighborhoods, and wherever questions about the existing system sprout up.
Building such a movement starts with a socialist understanding about where change comes from. Contrary to the concept of history that we’re taught in school — where what matters are the names of important people and the dates when they did or said something important — social change happens in a much more dynamic way.
The most important reforms associated with a particular date or person are typically be the product of years of struggle, involving many hundred of times more people than the few who are remembered in history books.
Even in cases when working-class people are credited with winning historic change, the orthodox history we’re taught downplays the experiences and struggles that led them into the spotlight.
Rosa Parks is routinely described as someone who was just “too tired” to get up from her seat and go to the back of the bus — and that’s how the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. Even when her previous history as an organizer for civil rights in the Jim Crow South is remembered, the struggles before her that shaped her ideas and activism are forgotten.
Instead, conventional history is about the “great leaders” who stand above the rest of us. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is credited with saving the American working class from the ravages of the Great Depression with his New Deal programs of the 1930s. Sanders himself identifies with this vision of social reform, carried out from above to benefit the masses of people below.
What’s left out of that version of history are the masses of people who really deserve the credit for the New Deal — collectively known as the American working class. Their strikes and pickets and protests and factory occupations during the 1930s pressured the political establishment, with Roosevelt at its head, and the American ruling class to acknowledge working-class demands.
Fierce strikes — for example, in Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco in 1934 — forced companies to back down on their abuses of workers. But they also created a climate of working-class upheaval that the U.S. rulers finally couldn’t ignore. That’s why Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act, which finally made it illegal for employers to refuse to negotiate with unions, established Social Security, and all the other things we associate with the New Deal.
Rather than satisfying workers, these reforms emboldened them to fight for more. In late 1936 and early 1937, the Roosevelt administration attempted to halt a strike by General Motors workers in Flint, Michigan, but the strikers refused to back down and organized a sit-down occupation of their plant. As the occupation spread to other GM workers and then far beyond, ordinary people throughout the U.S. experienced firsthand what it was like to organize themselves and feel their own power in their workplaces.
Historian Jeremy Brecher described what the occupied Flint factories run looked like in his book Strike!:
The basic decision-making body was a daily meeting of all the strikers in the plant. “The entire life of the sit-down came into review here and most of its ideas and decisions originated on the spot,” Henry Kraus reported. The chief administrative body was a committee of 17 that reported to the strikers; available records indicate that virtually all its decisions were cleared with the general meeting of strikers…
Social groups of 15, usually men who worked together in the shop, set up house and lived together family-style in their own corner of the plant, usually with close camaraderie. Each group had its own steward, and the stewards met together from time to time.
The actual work of the strike was done by committees on food, recreation, information, education, postal services, sanitation, grievances, tracking down rumors, coordination with the outside, and the like. Each worker served on at least one committee, and was responsible for six hours of strike duty a day. The sit-downers sent out their own representatives to recruit union members, coordinate relief, and create an “outside defense squad.”…
[W]omen established a Women’s Emergency Brigade of 350, organized on military lines, ready to battle police. “We will form a line around the men, and if the police want to fire, then they’ll just have to fire into us,” announced a leader. “A new type of woman was born in the strike,” one of the women said. “Women who only yesterday were horrified at unionism, who felt inferior to the task of organizing, speaking, leading, have, as if overnight, become the spearhead in the battle of unionism.”
One of the jobs of socialists is to be the memory of this history of working-class struggle and working-class power — even when there are few current examples to draw on. Socialists do this not because it’s wishful thinking on our part, but because we know that history is filled with examples of workers’ struggles erupting, and that they have lessons that can inform the next struggle down the road.
Working-class people are seldom given the credit for the massive changes that they are responsible for when they organize and fight back.
And neither are the socialists that have helped to lead these struggles — like the Teamster socialists who organized in Minneapolis years before their rebellion against the company in 1934, learning Marxism and gaining trust among their co-workers. Or the communists who led the fight to free the Scottsboro Boys, wrongly accused of rape, and shone a spotlight on Jim Crow in the South, as well as racism in the North.
And there are the examples of working-class power on an even higher level — when masses of people take power away from the old order and begin running society for themselves. The most famous example of these revolutions is the Russian Revolution of 1917, but there are many others to draw on, including those right here in the U.S. — like the story of Seattle workers in 1919 who, inspired by the Russian example, took over their city for a brief period.
Sanders is getting the spotlight as an American socialist, and he certainly deserves attention as a breath of fresh air in the stale and tired American political system. But he himself hasn’t done much to draw attention to the role played by other socialists in American history — or the role played by the U.S. working class for that matter.
It will be up those of us interested in building bottom-up socialist organization committed to transforming the world to carry that tradition to a new audience.
It will be up to us to be a part of the struggles that break out today, and try to figure out the next link in the chain that will make both them and the wider working-class movement stronger.
Socialists need to be committed to building an organization that can be the memory of past struggles; that can bring Marxist analysis and theory to bear to understand the current system and why it has to be overthrown; and that can take part in the day-to-day fights against the system, with an idea of how each can be advanced, and how all are connected together in a wider struggle.
With every battle, socialists are learning alongside others about the next demand, the next argument and the next steps.
That’s a movement worth being a part of and building today.