Sanders promised a “revolution,” but campaigned as a democratic reformer. Ultimately that may not be enough

Bernie Sanders’ revolution is still alive — but is democratic socialism a realistic goal?

Since Bernie Sanders’ historic presidential run ended last year, the senator from Vermont has attempted to keep his “political revolution” alive in order to bring about lasting change. Though he lost his Democratic primary run against Hillary Clinton more than a year ago, today Sanders is the undisputed face of progressive politics in America, and consistently ranks as the most popular politician in the country. He is in a very good position, then, to promote his cause and continue his political revolution.

Yet even as Sanders has become a household name in America, some uncertainty has lingered about his political revolution and what it truly represents. Is, for example, Sanders a democratic socialist — as he calls himself — or is he more of a social democrat? And just how radical — and revolutionary — is his political revolution? The word revolution does, after all, historically denote the abrupt and often violent overthrow of a government and/or social system.

In one interview with Rolling Stone last year, Sanders was explicitly asked by Tim Dickinson whether he supported an “overthrow of the capitalist system” like one of his political heroes, five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs. The senator’s response was unequivocal. “No, no, no. Now you’re being provocative,” said Sanders, who went on to lay out what he actually meant by political revolution:

What we have got to do is not only overturn Citizens United, but we have got to move, in my view, to public funding of elections. We have to pass universal legislation that makes everybody in this country who is 18 or older eligible to vote, so we do away with the Republican voter suppression around the country.

This, of course, is what one would call a reformist agenda rather than a revolutionary one — which is essentially what the Sanders campaign was all about. Though Sanders identified as a “democratic socialist” and advocated a “political revolution,” in reality the Vermont senator was more of a social democrat who espoused a bold though decidedly moderate agenda. Sanders did not advocate an overthrow of the government or the collective ownership of the means of production, but a nonviolent popular movement fighting for progressive reforms akin to the New Deal legislation of the 1930s.

And this is ultimately what Sanders meant by a political revolution. Using the Democratic primaries as a launch pad, the senator aimed to create a sustained grassroots movement similar to transformative social movements of the past (e.g., the Civil Rights movement, women’s suffrage, the labor and socialist movements, etc.). “Change never takes place from the top down, it comes from the bottom up,” the senator frequently repeated during his run, suggesting that electoral politics is limited in what it can accomplish.

Whether one believes in reform or revolution (or, indeed, counterrevolution), it is hard to argue with this theory of change. History shows us that social movements drive progress and that political apathy is the lifeblood of the ruling class. This may sound like common sense, but Americans have become so accustomed to the spectator sport that is modern electoral politics that it was actually radical for Sanders to drive this point home last year. And he has continued to do so over the past year. Indeed, last week he made a stop in Naperville, Illinois to give a presentation on his new book, “Bernie Sanders’ Guide to Political Revolution,” and the message was familiar.

“The struggle of American democracy has been to become a more encompassing democracy, to involve more and more people,” said Sanders to group of high school students. ”And none of that happened by accident. It happened because people stood up and struggled and fought to make that happen.”

Not surprisingly, the senator’s new “guide” to political revolution advocates reforming the system rather than overthrowing it. This is to be expected from a social democrat like Sanders, who believes that it is both possible and preferable to reform our political system and economy through legislative means. But not all of Sanders’ supporters are on the same page. There is a growing subset of progressives who believe that while social democratic reform is a step in the right direction, the end goal should be true democratic socialism — meaning an economic democracy in which workers rather than plutocrats hold power.

This debate between social democrats and democratic socialists was recently on display in the pages of the New Republic and Jacobin Magazine. In the former publication, veteran progressive journalist John Judis wrote an  excellent article on the resurgence of the American left and why he believes it should embrace a social democratic agenda going forward.

The “old nostrums about ownership and control of the means of production simply don’t resonate in 2017,” writes Judis, who contends that social democracy, “while lacking in utopian appeal, does provide a vision that goes very far beyond the status quo in the United States.” The author of “The Populist Explosion” goes on to suggest that American socialists should “do what the Europeans did after World War II and bid goodbye to the Marxist vision of democratic control and ownership of the means of production.”

“They need to recognize that what is necessary now — and also conceivable — is not to abolish capitalism, but to create socialism within it,” Judis concludes.

Responding to Judis’ piece in Jacobin, founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara and Joseph Schwartz, national vice chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, observe that while Judis has good intentions, his reformist vision would ultimately lead progressives “into the dead end of twentieth-century social democracy.”

“History shows us that achieving a stable welfare state while leaving capital’s power over the economy largely intact is itself far from viable,” they write. “Even if we wanted to stop at socialism within capitalism, it’s not clear that we could.”

This is a crucial point that social democrats like Judis must grapple with. Even the French economist Thomas Piketty — an avowed European social democrat — concludes in his bestselling book on inequality, “Capital In the Twenty-First Century,” that the “golden age” of capitalism in the mid-20th century, when inequality levels actually declined, was a historical aberration that is unlikely to repeat itself. While social democrats are often seen as the pragmatists of the left, it is the democratic socialists who recognize the structural forces of capitalism and the inevitable antagonism between labor and capital.

Of course, the question of political pragmatism depends largely on one’s perspective. In the short term, the social democrats who are currently trying to take over the Democratic Party and carry out a progressive agenda in the halls of Congress are certainly more pragmatic than the democratic socialists who obstinately reject the Democrats. The United States has a winner-takes-all voting system that favors two major parties. Until we see electoral reforms that not only eliminate money from politics but create proportional representation  and ranked-choice voting, working with (and within) the Democratic Party seems to be a necessity. This does not mean the left should limit itself to electoral politics, however; as Sanders has argued over the past two years, there must also be a sustained popular movement that pressures elected officials to pass the needed reforms.

This may be the pragmatic way forward in the short term, but in the long run the left must also deal with the question of what comes after the current stage of capitalism and how to create this future. Social democracy cannot be the end goal, lest we repeat what happened at the end of the 20th century. At the present moment it is imperative to work within the system and fight for meaningful reforms. But eventually a true “political revolution” may be necessary to confront capital in the 21st century.

 Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.
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