Why Millennials Aren’t Afraid of Socialism


It’s an old idea, but the people who will make it happen are young—and tired of the unequal world they’ve inherited.

On Wednesday, November 9, at 9:47 am, BuzzFeed News sent out a push notification: “Trump is leading a global nationalist wave. The liberal world order is nearly over and the age of populism is here.” This, from a publication better known for listicles than sweeping political pronouncements. If even BuzzFeed felt it necessary to ring the death knell for the “liberal world order,” then liberalism must be really, really dead.

But what, besides global nationalism, can replace it? The answer is clear if we look at the 2016 election from its inception. The race we should be remembering is not just Clinton versus Trump, but Sanders versus Clinton. For nearly a year, millions of Americans supported an avowed socialist, and many of those people were young—like me.

This new New Left renaissance isn’t confined to the United States: Our British neighbors witnessed a similar wave of enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn. It’s kind of funny, if you think about it: The two most prominent politicians to galvanize young people in the United States and the United Kingdom over the last year are old white dudes. Sanders and Corbyn both look like my dad, except even older and less cool.

And it’s not just them—their ideas are old too. Or so it would seem to anyone who came of age before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Socialism, the redistribution of wealth, providing vital benefits and social services through the mechanism of the state—people were talking about this in the 1960s. And in the 1930s. And in the 19-teens. And now Sanders and Corbyn are recycling those hoary ideas (or so the argument goes), their only concession to the 21st century being the incorporation of racial-, queer-, and climate-justice rhetoric. (We can argue about how earnest they are and how successful that’s been).

And yet, in the 2016 primaries, Sanders won more votes from people under 30 than Clinton and Trump combined. Bernie pulled in more than 2 million of us; Clinton and Trump trailed far behind, with approximately 770,000 and 830,000, respectively.

Corbyn’s signature achievement thus far has been nearly tripling the size of the UK Labour Party. With over 550,000 members, it’s the largest political party in Western Europe. Though Corbyn’s supporters are not as strikingly youthful as Sanders’s—the influx of new members has barely changed the party’s average age—the youngest among them have a similar enthusiasm.

If you spent last year wondering why all these young people (“millennials,” as the headlines love to shout) have flocked to dudes even older and less cool than my dad, consider this: I’m 22. I was born in 1994. Bill Clinton was president. It was the era of the New Democrats in the United States and New Labour in the UK. Five years earlier, Francis Fukuyama had famously declared “the end of history,” and neither September 11 nor the global financial collapse had yet shaken that sense of security. My birth, and that of my generation, coincided with a huge geopolitical shift: For the first time in 50 years, the world wasn’t split in two along the familiar capitalist/communist lines of the Cold War. Seemingly, it had become whole.

George W. Bush was president for most of my childhood. My parents were Democrats in a red state, and at that point primarily defined their politics as being against the Iraq War and for same-sex marriage. Things like class, exploitation, and inequality were never mentioned, let alone a systematic way—like socialism—to think about them. I took up these anti-Republican positions with righteous gusto. In fact, I was co-president of my high school’s Young Democrats chapter, where I organized a screening of Jesus Camp and led discussions about the hypocrisy of the right’s “family values” agenda. Those were my politics.

The first president I voted for was Barack Obama, in 2012. By then, the shiny hope-and-change stuff had worn off a bit. I vaguely knew that drones were bad and that those responsible for the financial catastrophe a few years earlier had gotten off easy, but I didn’t think about it much. I was too busy binge-drinking in sweaty college basements—and hey, I’d voted for a Democrat. That was chill, right?

A child of the ’90s, I knew only neoliberalism. Socialism was brand-new.

It was during Obama’s second term that I began to understand how bad the financial crisis was and who was responsible (hint: the financial sector). Occupy Wall Street started to seem less like agenda-less rabble-rousing, as I had thought when I was co-president of the Young Democrats, and more like people confronting wealth and power in an unprecedented—and incisive—way. Thomas Piketty published his neo-Marxist tome, and its introduction alone fundamentally changed the way I understood economics. There was that viral video, based on a 2011 academic study of Americans’ perceptions of inequality, that used stacks of money to illustrate the wealth gap in United States. I must’ve seen it 30 times.

Four years later, as I finished college, Bernie Sanders shuffled onto the national political stage and offered an analysis: Poverty isn’t a natural phenomenon; it exists because a few people own far more than their fair share. He also offered a solution: The government could act on behalf of those of us just barely treading water. The government’s role, Sanders argued, is to correct the rampant inequality in this country by taxing the rich and using that money to offer real social services.

The erasure of socialist ideas from serious political discourse throughout most of my life wasn’t a historical fluke. The West’s victory in the Cold War—liberal democracy for everyone!—came at the price of iconoclasm, much of it celebratory. In Prague, there used to be a giant socialist-realist statue of Stalin and other communist leaders standing in a line on a hill overlooking the city from the north. Czechs called it the “meat line,” a joke about the long lines they had to wait in to get groceries. Now kids skateboard on the platform where the dictator once kept watch. To visit Prague now—or Budapest, or Sofia, or Bucharest, or Berlin—you might think that communism never happened. All that’s left are a few tacky museums and somber monuments.

So communism was killed, and along with it went any discussion of socialism and Marxism. This was the world of my childhood and adolescence, full of establishment progressives who were aggressively centrist and just as willing as conservatives to privilege the interests of capital over those of labor: think of the reckless expansion of so-called free trade, or the brutal military-industrial complex. For most of my life, I would have been hard-pressed to define capitalism, because in the news and in my textbooks, no other ways of organizing an economy were even acknowledged. I didn’t know that there could be an alternative.

It occurred to me recently that my peers and I will come of age in the era of Trump. It’s a bleak generational landmark, and not one I anticipated, but ideological capitulation and despair are not the answer. In the 1930s and 1940s, many of the most dedicated antifascists were communists. The antidote to radical exploitation and exclusion is radical egalitarianism and inclusion.

So we will be the opposition—but we’re not starting from scratch. The Fight for $15, organized in part by Socialist Alternative, went from a fringe dream to a political reality that has thus far spread to at least 10 cities and two states. Heterodox economists like Ha-Joon Chang, Mariana Mazzucato, and Stephanie Kelton are reshaping their discipline. And while Trump has dominated the headlines, there is still plenty of momentum around the socialist ideas that Bernie used to inspire America. Our Revolution is working hard to take the fight to the states; there it will be joined by groups like the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America, whose membership has grown by more than 50 percent since November 8. That’s more than 4,000 new members.

When I heard Bernie say, out loud, that the billionaire class was ruthless and exploitative, that sounded groundbreaking. Not only did he name the right problem—inequality, not poverty—he named the culprit. I didn’t know you could do that. To me, and to hundreds of thousands of my peers, Sanders’s (and Corbyn’s) socialism doesn’t feel antiquated. Instead, it feels fresh and vital precisely because it has been silenced for so long—and because we need it now more than ever.

My dad—slightly younger and slightly cooler than Sanders and Corbyn—picked me up from the airport the day before Thanksgiving. In the car, he confessed: “I liked a lot of the things Bernie had to say, but I just didn’t think he could get elected.” He sighed, ran a hand through his white hair, and pushed his glasses up his nose. “I thought Hillary had a better shot, but she couldn’t pull it off. Maybe Bernie could have… Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio…”

My dad sounded humble. Trump’s election, which to so many of us feels like a tragedy, prompted him to consider a new way of thinking. Maybe socialism isn’t a lost cause after all. Maybe it’s our best hope.

The socialist history they hide from us

Socialism was put at the center of U.S. politics by the campaign of Bernie Sanders, which confirmed again what people who protest for a living wage or stand up against police racism have been saying for years: The capitalist system isn’t working, and we need an alternative.

At this summer’s Socialism 2016 conference in Chicago, Sharon Smith and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor were the main speakers at an evening plenary session on “The Fight for a Socialist Future.” Here, we publish the speech by Sharon Smith, author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States and Women and Socialism: Class, Race and Capital, edited for publication, in which she talks about the hidden history of socialist organizing in the U.S. and the lessons that history holds for today. SW also featured Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s speech here.

Members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers on the picket line in 1915

Members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers on the picket line in 1915

I HAVE a message for all those naysayers who are absolutely certain that the U.S. could never go socialist because the working class is too–fill in the blank here–a) bought off; b) materialistic; c) apathetic; d) self-absorbed; e) pro-capitalist; f) consumeristic; g) reactionary; h) ignorant; or i) stupid to ever join a socialist movement.

To all those naysayers, I feel compelled to say, “We told you so.” And the supporting evidence for this statement can be summed up in two words: Sanders supporters.

Yes, the millions of youth who have flocked to Bernie Sanders and declared themselves to be socialists–that is, committed to confronting the colossal degree of inequality that capitalism produces–have proven that America could indeed go socialist if today’s younger generation has anything to say about it.

This generation–which is saddled with debt and faces living standards lower than their parents, with a future of a series of low-paying jobs–has demonstrated to all that this country, just like all others in the world, is divided into classes, in which the vast majority of people suffer because of capitalism: A system that is driven only by the insatiable quest for profits on the part of a tiny capitalist class, without the slightest regard for human need or for the workers who produce their profits.

But the young socialists of today want to fight all forms of inequality and oppression. Large majorities are against the continued oppression of women and LGBTQ people and against racism. They mobilized in large numbers in support of Black Lives Matter and against the oppression of LGBTQ people, including after the horrific murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando just a couple of weeks ago.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the youth of today are giving us exactly the kind of hope for the future that has been missing for quite a long time in the socialist movement. This last year is the first time in many decades that a self-described socialist presidential candidate has won mass support in this country–and that is an enormous tipping point for our side.

Having said that, I want to emphasize that we older folks also have an indispensable role to play in the fight for socialism because a socialist organization acts as the collective memory of the working class. Knowing our history allows us to gain from the experience of those who have fought before us–so we can learn from the victories as well as the defeats of the past.

Without that knowledge of history, we will find ourselves reinventing the wheel every time we begin a new struggle, repeating past mistakes and having to learn old lessons all over again, suffering unnecessary defeats instead of advancing the fight for socialism.

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KARL MARX and Frederick Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle”–meaning that class struggle on a massive scale ultimately creates the conditions for socialist revolution.

But the truth is that a ruling class offensive against the working class has been going on for 40 years now–and make no mistake, it’s a bipartisan project, with the aim of lowering working-class living standards and destroying working-class organizations. While the mainstream media tells us that it’s great progress when the Democrats and Republicans work together, exactly the opposite is true: Bipartisanship means that their side is completely united against our side, which is never good news for us.

The one-sided class war of the last 40 years means that today’s generation of young radicals knows only a lifetime of declining living standards, defeat and setback, with very few victories in between.

There has never been such an extended period of working-class retreat and defeat in the history of U.S. capitalism as what we have experienced these last 40 years–this is true. But we need to understand that, as terrible as it has been to go through it, the last 40 years is the exception rather than the rule.

Capitalism created two objectively antagonistic classes in society, the exploiters and the exploited, the capitalists and the working class. Unfortunately, many people even on the left have written off the potential of the working class to fight for socialism because it hasn’t happened in so long. This makes our history even more important to learn and understand.

The working class in this country actually has a long-standing tradition of radicalism. Anarchists, socialists and other radicals played a leading role in nearly every major strike in our history until the radical movement was destroyed by McCarthyism. During the anti-communist witch hunt in the 1950s, Communist Party members Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed just to make an example out of them, and literally thousands of radicals and union militants, from Hollywood actors to the United Auto Workers, were persecuted, prosecuted, fired from their jobs, blacklisted and sent to prison for their beliefs.

This was a conscious assault on the part of the U.S. ruling class that succeeded at physically removing the radical tradition from inside the working class. Since that time, through no fault of its own, the socialist movement has been exiled to the margins of the class that it champions. Until now, that is.

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THE HISTORY of the socialist movement and the class struggle in the U.S. is barely mentioned in history classes at school–not because the teachers refuse to teach it, but because their lesson plans are scripted from on high by those who have an interest in maintaining the capitalist system. They don’t want us to know about it in case it gives us any ideas about doing something similar.

In reality, the U.S. working class possesses a tradition that has, at certain key points, led the world working class in its heroism and combativity. The U.S. working class movement launched the struggle for the eight-hour workday back in the 1880s, and Chicago was the site of the very first May Day. That holiday is named after the Haymarket Martyrs and celebrated in countries all over the world every May 1. The U.S. is one of the few places where May Day is not celebrated.

The U.S. is also the home of the New York City garment workers’ struggle of 1909 involving 20,000 women workers, all of them immigrants who spoke a dozen different languages and yet managed to unite and strike against sweatshop conditions. That struggle launched the first International Women’s Day, celebrated as a socialist holiday the world over–again, seemingly, everywhere but here.

Most people don’t know it, but hundreds of thousands of working-class people built a grassroots antiwar movement against the First World War in this country–in spite of the fact that the government passed a law called the Espionage Act making it a crime to speak out against the war.

Groups of workers and poor farmers organized and passed declarations like this one by the Oklahoma Socialists society in December 1914: “If war is declared, the Socialists of Oklahoma shall refuse to enlist; but if forced to enter military service to murder fellow workers, we shall choose to die fighting the enemies of humanity in our ranks rather than to perish fighting our fellow workers.”

The U.S. is also the home of the sit-down strikes of the 1930s that built the industrial unions. This was not only the highest point of working-class struggle in U.S. history with the strike wave that built the CIO unions, but it also brought together thousands and thousands of Black and white workers, who stood shoulder to shoulder against a common enemy, on picket lines and in sit-down strikes, on demonstrations to free the Scottsboro Boys–nine young Black men put on death row in Alabama on trumped-up rape charges.

In other words, in the 1930s, thousands of white workers consciously came over to the fight against racism for the first time in U.S. history.

And far from taking a backseat to men in the class struggle during the 1930s, women workers built unions in their own right, and played a leading role in some of the most important strikes that took place.

During the Flint sit-down strike of 1937, when the mostly male workforce occupied the plant to demand a union, socialist women organized the Flint Women’s Emergency Brigade, which was far from a typical women’s auxiliary that limited itself to cooking food for the strikers. On the contrary, the women armed themselves with objects that looked remarkably like baseball bats to fight–and beat–the police and National Guard. That is the power of the class struggle when it reaches massive proportions.

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THE 1930s was also an era of political radicalization inside the working class. And workers who were in the forefront of the class struggle began to break with the Democratic Party–seeing through Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s posturing as the spokesman for the downtrodden, when in reality he stood solidly on the side of saving capitalism during the Great Depression.

Instead, those workers leading key industrial struggles called for a working-class party of their own. The United Auto Workers (UAW) convention of 1935 actually voted down a resolution supporting Roosevelt for president, and instead voted overwhelmingly to launch a national farm-labor party as a left-wing alternative. They only backed down after the CIO leadership threatened to take away their strike funds if they didn’t support Roosevelt.

In fact, at any given time prior to the McCarthy witch hunts, thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of working-class people belonged to a radical political party.

The Socialist Party in the early 1900s reached a membership of 120,000, and their candidate for president, the revolutionary socialist Eugene Debs, got almost a million votes when he ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket in 1912.

It has also been estimated that roughly 1 million workers passed in and out of the Communist Party in the 1930s and ’40s. The party reached 80,000 members at its height, with a membership that was 9 percent Black. And remember that this was still a time when Jim Crow segregation and lynching were the order of the day, showing the possibility for building a multiracial movement in the U.S. today.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the U.S. was the home of a wildcat strike wave that built rank-and-file workers movements like the Miners for Democracy, the Teamsters for a Decent Contract and the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, known as DRUM.

DRUM and other movements like it were significant because they were organizations of Black workers that took on not only the racism of the auto companies, but racism inside the UAW. And they drew in a sizeable number of white workers who walked out of their factories in solidarity with Black workers, in a fight explicitly against racism.

In the 1960s, not only was the U.S. the home of the women’s liberation movement and the Black Power movement that inspired people all over the world to fight against oppression, but the U.S. also gave birth to the gay liberation movement, after the Stonewall Rebellion that also touched off gay liberation movements around the world.

In more recent history, on May 1, 2006, May Day or International Workers’ Day, was celebrated on U.S. soil with mass working-class demonstrations appropriately led by immigrants, who have always played a key role in the U.S. radical working-class tradition. The movement’s most powerful slogan, “a day without immigrants,” showed that its strategy of social struggle was tied explicitly to the power of workers to withhold their labor.

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WHETHER OR not you plan to hold your nose and vote for Hillary Clinton, or plan to vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party, or just abstain from the whole voting process this year, we all actually have a more important choice to make at this point.

The German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg put the choice that we face as that between “socialism or barbarism,” because we’ll either end up with one or the other.

And I’d say we’re getting pretty close to barbarism when refugees are drowning by the hundreds at a time to escape civil war, and then getting stopped and detained once they reach Europe; when UNICEF just predicted that 69 million children will die of starvation and disease by 2030, and half of these children who will die are from Sub-Saharan Africa; when prisons are teeming with poor people and people of color, and yet General Motors executives knowingly killed at least 125 people with faulty airbags then tried to cover it up–yet no one has yet suggested that any of them spend even a minute in jail.

And if you think things can’t get any worse, I guarantee you that it can. History tells us that.

But the same conditions that fuel the potential for the growth of the right also create the potential for the growth of the left. This is the only way to understand the massive support for both Donald Trump and also for Bernie Sanders.

The question is not now and never has been if but when workers in the U.S. will begin to fight back once again–and not if but when it will become possible to build a political party based on the principles of socialism.

We also need to recognize that the working class today is composed of many races, sexualities and gender identities, and is capable of propelling issues of racism and other forms of oppression to the center of the class struggle in ways that would have been unimaginable in the past.

I want to end by saying to those of us here who have survived all or part of the last 40 years: Thank you for not wavering from your belief in the power of the working class to change society. And to those of you who are new to the socialist movement, who are unjaded and full of optimism, and will undoubtedly carry on the struggle: Thank you for giving us hope for the future of all humanity.


Only Socialism Can Defeat Trumpism

Millions of ordinary people are ready for an alternative, one pointed to by the success of Bernie Sanders.

It’s Wednesday, November 9, and Hillary Clinton has defeated Donald Trump. Media commentators and political observers are celebrating the triumph of rationality, but a nagging question looms: In the battle between Clinton and Trump, who would have won if Trump had followed the wisdom of his staff and reined himself in a bit rather than stumbling into a million gaffes?

The likelihood of this post-election scenario is a reminder that even if Clinton can defeat Trump in November, Clintonism is ill-equipped to beat back Trumpism in the long run. It will take a much more radical vision to channel the popular anger that Trump has exposed toward positive ends.

Sure, the Democratic platform is its most progressive in years. Adopting the demands of Bernie Sanders supporters for a $15 minimum wage, affordable public-university tuition, new financial regulations, and a softened Trans-Pacific Partnership were enough to placate the Vermont senator and many of his followers. But the party remains firmly oriented toward business, defined by a decades-long record that includes NAFTA, gutting welfare, handouts to Wall Street, and the championing of projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. Disillusioned progressives could certainly be forgiven for doubting the party will keep its promises after the election.

Moreover, a significant number of Americans, who feel alienated from the political and economic establishment now aligned behind Clinton, remain firmly in Trump’s camp. So while it seems increasingly likely that a majority of voters will ultimately balk at Trump’s xenophobia and fearmongering, Democrats will have to deal with the rhetoric of Trumpism for cycles to come, especially in state and local races. Mainstream Republicans may spurn Trump, but they share much in common with their candidate and have total or split control of 34 state legislatures. Under President Obama, Democrats have lost almost a thousand state-legislature seats, a dozen gubernatorial races, 69 House seats and 13 in the Senate. A Clinton victory, even a sizable one, will not turn back this tide.

And it’s naive to suggest—as many Democrats have—that this political shift is simply the result of massive investment of money in politics by the Koch brothers and their ilk, and would melt away in the event of strong campaign finance reform or through reversing the GOP’s radical 2010 redistricting effort. Many Republican campaigns are rooted in deep grassroots organizing and enthusiasm, and Trump has only added to this zeal. The far-right populism fueling his campaign—and the rise of far-right parties in Europe—is here to stay, whether it’s featured at the front of the Republican ticket in 2020 or not.

The Democratic Party must ponder a tough question: How much of Trump’s support among the white working class can really be chalked up to Republican propaganda and race-baiting, or is a good deal of populist anger rooted in the Democrats’ hypocrisy on economic issues? If the past eight years of Obama recovery haven’t benefited these workers, why would they be enthused to rally beyond his anointed successor?

After all, Trump can blithely talk about thumbing his nose at China, making NATO countries pay up, or tearing up the global trade architecture, but for the Democrats this kind of populism is a poor fit, even after the Sanders “revolution.” Such talk is fundamentally alien to the party’s pro-globalization, free-trade, belt-tightening identity of the past three decades. Heedless of its increasingly suffering base, Democratic leadership has persisted in staying the course and damping demands for more economic fairness.

But the past year has shown that millions of ordinary people are ready for an alternative, one pointed to by the success of Sanders and the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. These leaders have tried to articulate a humanist, social-democratic vision—a platform with concrete demands that, if met, would improve the lives of the poor, restore dignity and means to workers, and assure young people that their efforts are not in vain. This vision resonates with voters. This is the vision that must be built on—and expanded—by any party that wants to be relevant in these times.

Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party would do well to take the popular demand for an alternative seriously. Americans—especially young adults and minorities—don’t see Sanders as a dinosaur trading on nostalgia or harking back to an irredeemable past. Instead, they see capitalism as a key source of their troubles. A recent Harvard University poll of Americans between the age of 18 and 29 found that 51 percent did not support capitalism, compared to only 42 percent who said they did. This doesn’t mean a socialist majority is right around the corner—only 33 percent offered it up as an alternative—but the poll indicates a significant shift in attitudes from just a few years ago.

Results like these fit within a broader picture of discontent. A majority of young Americans, including college-educated millennials, saddled with debt and dealing with bad jobs or no jobs, identify as working class—60 percent, more than any other group of Americans, suggesting that a class-based politics is increasingly salient. Even before Sanders ran for president, 66 percent of Americans saw “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between rich and poor, and recent data show that the wealth gap between middle-class Americans and elites has reached a record high. The vast majority of Americans are unhappy with the status quo, and most are willing to pay higher taxes or tax the rich for programs to improve public education and fund Social Security and Medicare.

Most Democratic politicians appear unwilling to acknowledge the extent of these shifts. But in this post-2008 climate, replete with anger against the establishment, the Clintonist approach of winning over moderates and drawing in reluctant leftists presupposes the existence of an ideological center that increasingly cannot hold. It might not be apparent on the eve of their November 8 triumph, but it will soon be.

As with the collapsing social democrats in Europe, the Democratic Party’s best bet is to move left and embrace a platform that speaks to the real needs, fears, and aspirations of working people. This doesn’t mean looking back with rose-colored glasses on the New Deal; it means building a coalition of young people, working-class whites, and minority voters around a new politics.

Those of us to the left of Clinton and the Democrats don’t have all the answers. But we have a good idea of where to start.

First, call for single-payer healthcare and free, quality public education—including higher education—for people of all ages. Fight for robust maternal and paternal leave and universal pre-K to help young families. These policies, despite debates on how to pay for them, are easily grasped and popular. The widespread support for Bernie’s broadsides against the “millionaire and billionaire” class shows that Americans are tired of handouts to Wall Street and the elite, and are ready for a new, progressive tax scheme to foot the bill.

But gains like single-payer and free higher education wouldn’t just be about giving a handout to working people instead of the rich. They would be part of a social movement demanding a decent life for all Americans. This movement would have a broader vision, one that includes the demand for a national job guarantee. Giving everyone a decent job isn’t a pipe dream. It’s a logical way to address pressing social problems and it’s achievable, through a robust expansion of public employment with an eye toward addressing social needs like infrastructure, education, and scientific research and scholarship in the public interest.

Policies like these will not only help alleviate material suffering, they will eventually help unite a divided electorate. Programs that benefit all Americans will foster the sense of solidarity and political engagement necessary to building a lasting progressive coalition in this country.

The alternative is more anxiety and inequality, a further decline in the Democratic Party’s base, and the continued growth of a Trump-like far right that is actively positioning itself to pick up the pieces. For the Democrats, no less than their peers in Europe, where the neoliberalization of social democracy has opened up space for a populist right, the choice on offer might well be either socialism or irrelevance.

Socialism in one galaxy? Star Trek.

Fifty years after it debuted on network television, Nicole Colson considers the legacy of Star Trek–and the idea of a society that meets the needs of the many, not just the few.

Uhura and Kirk during the classic Star Trek episode "Plato's Stepchildren"

Uhura and Kirk during the classic Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”

ON SEPTEMBER 8, 1966, a new show debuted on American television.

Billed by creator Gene Roddenberry as “Wagon Train in space,” for its loyal viewers–and legions more to come over the following five decades–the voyage of the starship Enterprise and its 23rd century crew, as it carried out its mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no [one] has gone before,” would permanently alter the landscape of popular culture.

Star Trek‘s cultural staying power came despite its failure to last on television. The “five-year mission” of the Enterprise lasted just three years–until 1969, when the show was canceled by NBC because of low ratings after 79 episodes.

In fact, the show barely made it to the air at all: In 1964, NBC passed on the first attempt at a pilot, declaring it “too cerebral.” A second attempt was filmed in 1965 when comedy legend Lucille Ball, who owned the studio that employed creator Rodenberry as a producer, personally intervened to persuade NBC to give the series another shot.

Despite its cancelation, the series–which was worked on by some of the premiere science fiction writers of the day–became a hit in broadcast syndication, firing the imagination of a wide audience.

Today, the original series continues to inspire legions of Trekkers, one of the most rabidly loyal fandoms in all of popular culture. It has spawned four syndicated spin-offs (with a fifth planned for next year)–and endless debates about the relative merits of each show’s captain in comparison to William Shatner’s James Tiberius Kirk.

Along with 13 movies (and counting), a complete language, and a rather unique brand of fan fiction, Star Trek stands as a testament to the desire of people for a vision of the future which is both recognizable to them, and better than the present.

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STAR TREK’S vision of the future was, in a word, cool. Geek toys and tech like tricorders, replicators and transporters suggest a future where technology has been harnessed to make life vastly better for the majority of people.

But as Wired.com noted, the reason Star Trek continues to inspire such devotion 50 years after its premiere is because of what it says about people, not technology:

The original show’s most visionary aspects were social, not scientific, and that had everything to do with the times. The country was in turmoil, embroiled in Vietnam and the growing civil rights movement. Roddenberry said later that these events influenced many of the themes, as well as the multicultural makeup of the crew.

For a 1960s audience, the 23rd century world envisioned aboard the Enterprise was immediately notable for the fact that it was multiracial and included women in positions of importance among the crew.

In the original series, despite the roles for women being somewhat limited–with the exception of Lt. Uhura, they are primarily nurses, junior officers and scantily clad alien and human love interests for Kirk–a vision of the future in which women are defined primarily through their work as opposed to their husbands, children or home-making abilities was rare on television.

(It has to be admitted, however, that the female crewmembers’ uniforms were utterly sexist, as even Roddenberry’s partner Majel Barrett would later concede.)

At the height of the civil rights movement and the Cold War, the fact that a show could assert that a superior, advanced human society was one in which white Americans lived and worked side by side on a mission of peaceful exploration with not only aliens, but Russians (Chekov) and people of Japanese descent (Sulu), as well as African Americans (Uhura), mattered in the larger cultural context.

According to Whoopi Goldberg, who would later play Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the impact of being able to see Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura was life-changing. “[W]hen I was 9 years old, Star Trek came on,” Goldberg said. “I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a Black lady on television, and she ain’t no maid!”

Martin Luther King himself considered Nichols’ Uhura to be “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a Black woman in television history.” When Nichols was thinking of leaving the show for Broadway, it was King who convinced her to stay with Star Trek. As Nichols recounted:

Dr. Martin Luther King, quite some time after I’d first met him, approached me and said something along the lines of “Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become a symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde-haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.”…I saw that this was bigger than just me.

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ONLY THE willfully ignorant could pretend not to see the message Roddenberry was intent on sending, as he frequently and gleefully pushed buttons. In “Plato’s Stepchildren,” an episode broadcast in 1968, Nichols and Shatner shared what is widely cited (though the matter is hotly debated) as the first interracial kiss on U.S. television.

Skittish network executives worried about the audience reaction and tried to squash the kiss, but Shatner hilariously ruined all of the alternative takes with his famous! punctuated! delivery! and even, in one take, crossed his eyes to ruin the shot. Nichols recounted in her autobiography:

Knowing that Gene was determined to air the real kiss, Bill shook me and hissed menacingly in his best ham-fisted Kirkian staccato delivery, “I! WON’T! KISS! YOU! I! WON’T! KISS! YOU!”

It was absolutely awful, and we were hysterical and ecstatic. The director was beside himself, and still determined to get the kissless shot…

The last shot, which looked okay on the set, actually had Bill wildly crossing his eyes. It was so corny and just plain bad it was unusable…I guess they figured we were going to be canceled in a few months anyway. And so the kiss stayed.

Critics today sometimes declare the scene a “cop out”–since the kiss isn’t a result of genuine desire, but of aliens telepathically forcing Kirk and Uhura to kiss against their will. But that misses the larger context of what it took to even get it on the air at a time when the Supreme Court decision striking down bans on interracial marriage had only just been handed down the year before.

Other episodes, like “Space Seed,” which introduced the character of Khan Noonien Singh–a genetically engineered “ubermensch” who, the show tells us, was part of “Eugenics wars” that broke out on Earth in the late 20th century–raise the specter of racism as a threat to the continued existence of humanity.

(While Kirk fails the “of course you should kill Hitler if you have the chance, you dummy” test, since Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan gifted us with one of the best moments of scenery-chewing ever committed to film, however, he can perhaps be forgiven.)

Another episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” famously featured Frank Gorshin (the Riddler on TV’s Batman) in a story about a species divided into two races–and mortal enemies–by skin color. Resembling alien black-and-white cookies, one race has a left side that is white and a right side that is black. The colors are reversed for the other race.

As Roddenberry explained, “Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.”

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BUT IF Star Trek’s vision of an inclusive society, in which various races live and work side by side without the specter of racism, is one of its main strengths, its conception of race overall is, paradoxically, sometimes also a weakness. Often, Star Trek–not only the original series, but spinoff series as well–slips dangerously close to essentialist notions of race.

In the 23rd century, racism no longer exists in the advanced civilization of the United Federation of Planets–yet time and again, species like the Klingons are portrayed as “naturally” warlike and violent; the Ferengi are “naturally” greedy; Romulans are “naturally” calculating and contemptuous of difference.

These species-wide characteristics are then used to set the species up as villains–and, more troubling, the audience is told in several instances that such “differences,” whether culturally ingrained or biological, should be respected.

This is where the contradictions at the heart of the Star Trek universe become most pronounced. (Though in the case of Deep Space Nine series, later seasons did at least examine this when it came to the characterization of the Ferengi and the Klingons.)

If Star Wars movies are essentially about the threat of space fascism and the resistance to it, then Star Trek is, at heart, about the hope for a sort of “space socialism”–a liberal, military-style socialism, but nevertheless one in which society is so technologically advanced that the material needs of the Federation’s inhabitants are met, allowing for the free and full development of individuals.

In the world of Star Trek, the availability of replicator technology generally means that anything you need can be beamed into existence. Yet because of the “Prime Directive”–the guiding principle of the Federation, which prohibits its members from interfering in the development of technologically backward alien societies–the Federation ostensibly ignores oppression, slavery and other horrors in less-developed societies, on the theory that working through these processes is part of a society’s internal development.

Since our heroes would never actually condone such oppressions, episodes often hinge on finding a way to skirt the letter of the Prime Directive–or in some cases, to justify inaction when individuals and even entire races, societies or planets face extinction.

The various Star Trek series broadly offer a critique of war and militarism even as they extol the Federation’s brand of liberal military intervention–a kind of United Nations in space. (In fact, the Charter of the United Federation of Planets actually drew text and inspiration from the UN Charter, as well as other sources.)

Though its internal logic is often convoluted or inconsistent–while replication technology has eliminated the need for money, there still are outposts, like that depicted in Deep Space Nine, which are run on a partially capitalist basis and where small businesses thrive, for example–Star Trek presents a vision of the future that is hopeful in its inclusivity and its suggestion of the possibility of a society free of deprivation and want.

As Captain Picard of The Next Generation series explains to several cryogenically frozen survivors of the 20th century when they are awoken onboard the Enterprise in the 24th century: “A lot has changed in the past 300 years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy…We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

In the Star Trek universe, without capitalist class relations to put the same kinds of strictures on people, individuals are free to develop themselves as they see fit. It’s one reason why the Borg–the most compelling villain from the Picard-era series–are so frightening. The Borg also provides for the material needs of its collective component worker members–but extinguishes all individuality among them. Individuals are assimilated, reduced to their work function as part of the hive–and nothing more.

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AS RODDENBERRY once explained, the show’s creators resisted the idea that TV audiences were too stupid or backward to appreciate the show’s message:

We believed that the often ridiculed mass audience is sick of this world’s petty nationalism and all its old ways and old hatreds, and that people are not only willing but anxious to think beyond most petty beliefs that have for so long kept mankind divided. So you see that the formula, the magic ingredient that many people keep seeking and many of them keep missing is really not in Star Trek. It is in the audience. There is an intelligent life form out on the other side of that television, too…

What Star Trek proves, as faulty as individual episodes could be, is that the much-maligned common man and common woman has an enormous hunger for brotherhood. They are ready for the 23rd century now, and they are light years ahead of their petty governments and their visionless leaders.

But that creates a problem: How to create compelling characters and stories when the foundation of so much drama is precisely the kind of petty conflict that supposedly doesn’t have a place in the Star Trek universe?

As Manu Saadia, author of the recent book Trekonomics, explained to Wired’s “Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy” podcast:

[The characters] are consistent with the economic circumstances in which they live. Imagine yourself growing up in a society where there is never any want or need or financial insecurity of any sort. You will be a very different person. You will be absolutely uninterested in conspicuous consumption…You will probably be interested in things of a higher nature–the cultivation of the mind, education, love, art and discovery. And so these people are very stoic in that sense, because they have no worldly interests that we today could relate to…

I usually say that they’re all aliens, in a way. My friend Chris [Black], who wrote on [The Next Generation], said it was really hard for the writers, because it’s a workplace drama, but there’s no drama.

That’s similar to what Karl Marx wrote in The German Ideology about the ways in which capitalism constrains human activity by alienating workers from their labor:

For as soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society…society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

In the Star Trek universe, I can be a ship’s captain in the morning, a detective in the afternoon, a winemaker in the evening, and a flute player after dinner (assuming my ship doesn’t get attacked by hostile Romulans that day, that is).

As the eminently logical Mr. Spock might have put it, the Star Trek universe is one in which humanity has determined that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one” (percent, that is).

“The human race is a remarkable creature, one with great potential,” Gene Roddenberry said, “and I hope that Star Trek has helped to show us what we can be if we believe in ourselves and our abilities.”

It’s up to the audience to go boldly–and make it so.


Che Guevara: A flawed revolutionary icon

Mike Gonzalez looks at the important lessons to be drawn from Samuel Farber’s new book, The Politics of Che Guevara, in a review first published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

Che Guevara in 1959 (Museo Che Guevara)

Che Guevara in 1959 (Museo Che Guevara)

FOR TWO generations of activists, Ernesto Che Guevara has symbolized a kind of selfless heroism. His relative youth at his death in 1967 (he was 38) conserved his air of rebelliousness and the image of a man interested only in the struggle, rather than in power.

Yet Sam Farber who acknowledges these qualities, describes him early in his new book, The Politics of Che Guevara, as “irremediably undemocratic.” The contradiction is striking and central to Farber’s critical analysis of Che’s life as a revolutionary.

Farber’s starting point is the understanding of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working classes, with the emphasis on self. In other words, revolution is, as Marx says (in his Theses on Feuerbach) the “coincidence of the changing of self and the changing of circumstances.” It is in acting collectively in the world that the majority come to recognize their own power and become subjects of history rather than merely its objects. That is the central idea of Marxism.

Yet Che Guevara’s politics and his practice were based on a very different idea–that it is revolutionaries who make the revolution. And they do so irrespective of the circumstances in which they operate, because it is the will of the revolutionary vanguard that is the key.

This voluntarist view is not just misguided; it is alien to the revolutionary tradition to which Farber (and myself) belong. The substitution of the leaders for the mass movement, points ahead to a very different future prefigured in the guerrilla method.

Farber explains that Edward Bellamy’s 19th century utopian novel Looking Backward was one of Guevara’s inspirations. Interestingly the future state that Bellamy imagines was modeled on an army.

Farber reminds us that revolutions do not automatically lead either to dictatorship or democracy; their outcome will depend on the “leading politics” of the movement. In the case of Cuba after 1959, the state was shaped around the command model–a pyramid of orders delivered from above and accepted without question–in which democracy appeared as a risk to the authority of leadership.

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IT SEEMS curious at first that someone with Guevara’s background should have come not just to accept, but to vigorously advocate that inescapably Stalinist project–to dismiss the right to strike and the independent organization of workers as mere obstacles on the road to revolution and to scorn the “false prophets of mass democracy”.

Born in Argentina to left wing parents influenced by the especially Stalinist Argentine communist party, Guevara grew up as a radical Bohemian, a life-style rebel who spurned what he saw as bourgeois habits, from cleanliness to ostentatious consumption. His protest against that culture took the form of a kind of a puritanical asceticism.

The politics would come later, though he was a visceral anti-imperialist from early on. And by the time he reached Mexico, where he met the Cuban rebels for the first time, he had begun to steep himself in Marxism. But it was a Marxism in the abstract, not linked to activism of any kind.

The members of the 26th July Movement with whom Che landed in Cuba in December 1956 to launch the guerrilla campaign were, as Farber describes them, rightly in my view, “déclassé”–political rebels from mainly middle class backgrounds with few roots in the mass movement. Guevara shared that dislocation.

With the victory of the revolution in January 1959, Che joined the Castro brothers in its leadership. It may surprise many readers that Che was–and Farber marshals a powerful body of evidence to prove his case–together with Raúl, the architect of the new state, though ultimately the political skills of Fidel carried him to the top of the pyramid.

It was not a search for personal power that made Che the unconditional supporter of a one-party state–unlike Fidel, for whom it was his driving impulse. But it reflected an admiration for the Stalinist state in its most sectarian and undemocratic manifestations–the state as the exclusive vanguard.

That model drove Che’s critically important interventions in the economy in the early years, based on rapid industrialization, but taking no account of the realities of the Cuban economy. By 1962, Che acknowledged how mistaken those economic policies were, but by then it was too late to turn the clock back.

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WHAT THIS “economic voluntarism”, as Farber calls it, illustrated was not just the single-minded dedication to the immediate creation of a communist state along Stalinist lines, but also a central feature of Guevara’s politics that Farber calls his “political tone-deafness” or his “schematism”.

It was already implicit in his early (1960) manual on Guerrilla Warfare, and definitive especially in his later activities in the Congo and Bolivia. For Guevara, political strategy was not shaped by the specific circumstances in which it unfolded.

So in a Bolivia with an extraordinary tradition of working-class militancy, and which was in the throes of a bitter strike wave when he arrived in 1966, he was insistent on creating a rural guerrilla force and paid no attention to the working-class movement except to call on its militants to join the guerrillas (which no more than a handful did). A year later Che was dead, together with most of his comrades.

In the Congo the failure of the movement there was attributed by Guevara to the lack of a vanguard leadership. And in his arguments with the French agronomist Rene Dumont over the right to strike, Guevara angrily rejected Dumont’s insistence that it was fundamental to a socialist democracy, just as he did in his famous essay Socialism and man in Cuba, insisting that “a mass party was only possible when the masses have attained vanguard consciousness”.

By the mid-sixties Che was increasingly critical of the Soviet economy’s drift towards capitalism, but at no point did that lead him to a criticism of the bureaucratic state. How could it, after all, when he had been an architect of the one-party state in Cuba?

What impresses in Farber’s book is the way in which he interweaves a critical assessment of Guevara’s politics with general arguments about the meaning of socialism. And at its heart, that socialism is democracy of the most radical and profound kind.

The one-party state that Che forged with Raúl Castro continues in Cuba today, overseeing the restoration of a capitalist economy. The lack of resistance to its inevitable effects are a product of a one-party regime that denied the diversity of working-class politics and imposed a system in which the majority had no freedom to act, criticize or generate alternative socialist projects.

Would Che have been happy with the outcome, and the corruption and manipulation of power it has produced? His role in creating the system suggests that he would, albeit perhaps with some misgivings. And he would have despised the yearning for a materially better life among the majority as the unacceptable infiltration of capitalist values.

So what should we do with this flawed revolutionary icon? Recognize that his high moral standards, his resolute internationalism, and his egalitarianism were qualities to cherish. But the one-party state he favored and its repression of democracy consigned the subjects of revolution to a position in which self-emancipation became impossible, as the self-proclaimed vanguard usurped their role, at first in the name of revolution but soon, and in the absence of any possibility of control from below, in their own self-interest.

First published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.


What would a revolution look like?

Opinion polls show that more and more people–especially young people–drawn to socialism as an alternative to capitalism. But what is socialism? Is it defined by the program of individual political leaders like Bernie Sanders or something broader than that? Danny Katch, author of Socialism…Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation, answers a question on everyone’s minds when they first learn about socialism.

Fight for 15 activists demonstrate for a living wage in Milwaukee

AFTER BERNIE Sanders started shaking up mainstream politics with his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, a Vox poll in January found that a majority of Americans thought that the “political revolution” he talked about might, in fact, “be necessary to redistribute money from the wealthiest Americans to the middle class.”

This is a remarkable statement in a country where people are brought up learning that they live in the “world’s greatest democracy.” The reason this mindset has come about is the hard experience of seeing the people in charge of political and social institutions be unwilling or unable to address critical issues like growing inequality and climate change.

Among people under the age of 30, an overwhelming 68 percent agreed that a revolution might be necessary–probably because for them, the political system seems too broken to deal even with issues that strike them as basic questions of common sense and human decency.

For instance, a majority of Americans in the so-called Millennial generation support immigrant rights, the Black Lives Matter movement and transgender people’s right to use the bathroom they prefer.

But they’re stuck in a country seemingly held hostage by an aging white Republican minority that actually thinks Barack Obama is a secret Muslim and that two people with penises can’t really love each other.

This political dysfunction has now been concentrated into a presidential election featuring a “choice” between the two most widely disliked candidates in recent history. As theWashington Post put it in a recent headline, “For millennial voters, the Clinton vs. Trump choice ‘feels like a joke.'”

And Sanders–the only politician who seemed genuine to many young people–has now joined the circus. Not only is he supporting Hillary Clinton against the Republican bigot and buffoon Donald Trump, he’s telling supporters with a straight face that voting for Clinton–the textbook definition of a status-quo candidate–is a way to “continue the political revolution.”

For the millions who enthusiastically supported Sanders, there is an important question to answer in the coming months and years–long after they decide to either support the Green Party’s Jill Stein in November or hold their nose and vote for Clinton or skip voting altogether.

That question is whether they will continue to see revolution as a real thing to work toward–or follow Sanders into reducing it into just another empty advertising slogan.

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THE MOST important changes in U.S. history–from winning independence to ending slavery to winning greater equality for African Americans and others–have come not from voting for one rich guy over another, but by taking to the streets, going on strike, organizing our classmates and workmates, and so on.

Most protest movements don’t become revolutions, of course. That only happens when the grievances of masses of people can neither be effectively addressed nor squelched by those in power, leading much wider layers of the population to decide that the time to act has finally come.

Revolutions are rare enough that most people never see them coming. But they are regular occurrences throughout modern history: from the American and French Revolutions of the late 1700s that broke the power of kings and aristocracies, to the “Arab Spring” uprisings of recent years that unleashed a wave of first hopeful and then horrible changes across the Middle East, with more to come.

Just as geologists would have no idea about the tectonic plates beneath our feet if not for the occasional earthquake, it’s impossible to understand the forces that shape our world without looking at the revolutions that created them.

One of the most important victories for human progress in modern times–the abolition of slavery–was begun with the Haitian Revolution at the end of the 18th century and decisively won by the American Civil War in the middle of the 19th.

Another was the ending of the direct ownership of much of the globe by a handful of countries through colonialism–a struggle whose early sparks came 100 years ago in revolutions in Mexico and Ireland and that, many years later, continued with revolts across Asia and Africa in the decades after the Second World War.

Then there are the great defeated socialist revolutions of the 20th century–most famously in Russia in 1917, the only socialist revolution to create a workers’ state that survived for any length of time.

The Russian monarchy was overthrown in 1917, and the world saw the first steps toward worker-run democracy. But within a decade, the country’s isolation and poverty led to the rise of a new form of dictatorship that worked for the rest of the century to convince most people that socialism was the opposite of democracy.

Unless we think we’ve arrived at the “end of history”–a popular idea among defenders of the status quo that has been proved false many times–there will be more revolutions around the world, quite possibly including in the U.S. If anything, the pace of world events seems to be speeding up these days.

Since we’re all going to be bombarded for the next two months with proclamations that the Trump-versus-Clinton election is a world-historic event, this seems like a good time to look at some actual world-historic events to imagine what a future revolution in the U.S. might look like.

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IN TERMS OF sheer numbers, our side has the decisive edge, as the poet Percy Shelly recognized back in 1819 when he wrote The Mask of Anarchy:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unfathomable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
That in sleep have fallen on you
Ye are many, they are few.

But in normal times, the few have a lot ways of keeping the many in check–from police repression to working people’s fear of losing their jobs.

Relatively small groups can win important gains–like the protesters continuing to take the streets against racist police violence, or the 39,000 Verizon workers who went on strike last spring to preserve their working conditions and set an example for the whole labor movement.

But the system depends on most people most of the time being unwilling and unable to take such an active role in shaping their own futures.

Then one day, that activist minority is suddenly no longer a minority–often to the great surprise of not only the rulers, but the ruled.

On January 25, 2011, Egyptian revolutionaries expected the usual hundreds to turn out to a protest against police repression. Instead, they were surrounded by tens of thousands, which in the coming days became hundreds of thousands and then millions–including workers in industries like textiles, whose strikes threatened the profits of the elite.

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A REVOLUTION in the U.S. would see not just larger versions of important recent protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, but millions of workers going on strike against Walmart, Amazon and other engines of American capitalism.

A revolution, wrote Leon Trotsky in his beautiful History of the Russian Revolution, is the “forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”

Can’t see it happening here? In his book, Trotsky described how when a Russian general launched a coup against the revolution, telegraph workers intercepted his communications and relayed the plans to railroad workers, who made sure the trains carrying his troops never got to their destination.

Now imagine revolutionary workers at Comcast and Verizon blocking the wireless and fiber-optic networks of local police departments attempting to arrest protest leaders or break up Occupy-style encampments.

This is one of the ironies of working-class revolutions: People take over the tools they’ve created for their bosses and use them for the common good.

In Mexico, for example, railroad workers seized the locomotives that were importing machinery and products of industrial capitalism from the U.S., and turned them into a transportation network for Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army.

In a future American revolution, tech workers can take the software that companies use to send employees home on days when business is projected to be slow, and instead track surplus products to direct them to households where they are needed. Airbnb workers can share their database of vacant housing with homeless organizers–if that’s even necessary after the revolution is done taking over the empty second and third homes of rich people.

New leaders emerge in revolutions–not the typical ones who have been groomed for decades by professional handlers, but genuine leaders earn the trust and respect of their communities and who finally get the chance to show the world how much more talented they are than the mediocrities normally in charge.

Toussaint L’Ouverture was a slave who took part in the Haitian Revolution–within months, he rose to become a general who outsmarted and defeated the armies of France, Spain and Britain.

Emiliano Zapata was a horse trainer whose longstanding demands for peasant rights were turned into a national rallying cry by the Mexican Revolution.

While Northern generals wasted the early years of the American Civil War stalling for time, Harriet Tubman used her long experience in the Underground Railroad to sneak into the South as a spy and lead daring raids that freed thousands of slaves.

Perhaps future American revolutionary leaders will emerge from among the women on hunger strike inside immigration detention centers–or the students leading walkouts in their high schools against the endless use of standardized tests.

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EVERY REVOLUTION faces challenges that determine how far it can go–for example, how to create more effective and democratic governing structures than the systems they are trying to replace.

The most important accomplishment of the Russian Revolution was the creation of workers’ councils, known in Russian as “soviets.” The councils, extending from workplaces and neighborhoods up to regional and national bodies, replaced career politicians and the state bureaucracy with a system of instantly recallable delegates. It was able to impose democratic control over previously unaccountable institutions like the military, police and private industry.

These workers’ councils, which have appeared in different forms in many later revolutions, became the heart of the revolutionary vision of socialism–which isn’t about “the government owning everything,” as the right-wing complaint goes, but instead everyone becoming the government.

Socialized medicine, for example, in a future American revolution wouldn’t just mean having better access to health care. It would mean hospitals and clinics being collectively run by doctors, nurses and patients.

Then there is the task of taking on the oppressions based on race, gender, nationality and religion, which are a vital tool used by ruling classes to keep their working majority divided.

There will be many forms of oppression to combat on many different levels in U.S. society–from opening up prisons filled with Black and Latino victims of a racist criminal justice system to finding ways to challenge the ignorant attitudes of potential revolutionaries toward women, Muslims and others.

Finally, every revolution faces the question of how to spread beyond its national borders in order to survive. Haitians ended slavery and won independence from the colonial powers, but they faced a hostile, racist world that punished them for centuries for their revolution. Russia inspired workers around the world, but remained isolated in a capitalist global economy, which doomed the revolution to eventual defeat.

Future revolutions will face similar questions, particularly how to tackle the urgent questions of climate change that can only be accomplished by a dramatic global shift toward sustainable economies and renewable energy.

But where does all this talk about a future revolution leave us today, when revolutions–not the bogus rhetoric about them, but the real kind–seem very far away?

It’s important for people who want to fight for change to understand how vital revolutions are to that process. Revolutions are not only possible, but inevitable in the long run.

The truth is that political systems are almost always “broken” in the sense that they don’t serve the needs of the majority. It’s in the struggles of today against inequality and injustice–never as large as they should be–that individuals and organizations can become more effective organizers and leaders for the hopefully larger fights tomorrow.

Bringing those leaders together in explicitly socialist organization–to share their experiences, learn the lessons of past struggles, absorb Marxist theory that can explain the world and collaborate to provide a left-wing pole of attraction for new groups of people becoming revolutionaries–is a critical part of the socialist struggle today.

But the organizing of today must be guided by a vision of what we’re working toward–those rare but regular revolutionary moments when ordinary people have a chance to change the course of history.


Beyond Bernie: What’s next for the left?


Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president came to an end with the self-declared socialist calling on his supporters to back the choice of the Democratic Party establishment. But the campaign will have a continuing effect on the millions of people who were energized by Sanders’ challenge to the U.S. political status quo–and by his open advocacy of socialism.

With the general election campaign underway, SocialistWorker.org asked leading writers and activists for their thoughts on the aftermath of the Sanders campaign and the job of the left in the post-Sanders period. Here’s what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Bhaskar Sunkara, Jen Roesch, Sarah Jaffe, Howie Hawkins and Amy Muldoon had to say.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders at a town meeting in Phoenix (Gage Skidmore)

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation

With each passing week, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign reaches a new low, and the liberal establishment’s coalescence around Hillary Clinton’s candidacy becomes even firmer.

Of course, Trump is a frightening thug who should be relentlessly resisted, but the overwhelming focus on him threatens to give Hillary Clinton a blank check as president.

Since the two parties’ conventions in July, Trump’s unraveling has meant little attention has been paid to developments in the Clinton campaign. Not only have a rogue’s gallery of war criminals come out to endorse her, but the campaign is actively soliciting the support of Republicans who are jumping Trump’s sinking ship. The concerns of skeptical Sanders supporters are validated with each conservative embrace by Clinton’s campaign.

But more troublesome than Clinton courting Republicans is how the crisis within the Republican Party apparatus is used to discipline liberals into passive complicity with Clinton’s–sometimes anemic and other times reactionary–political program. The pressure to keep Trump out of office also works to silence people who would otherwise be wholly critical of Clinton’s neoliberal political agenda.

For example, Clinton has promised to spend $120 billion to reinvest in urban centers with high unemployment and crumbling infrastructure. But on further review, what Clinton is actually promising is to create “empowerment zones” in these cities.

This is an old approach to urban reinvestment that gives massive tax breaks to corporations on the promise that they will create jobs. This, of course, has never worked in the 60 years that it has been proposed as a solution to urban problems.

Clinton, however, gets a pass because she is not Donald Trump. And the problem isn’t just during the election, but that this passivity, if Clinton wins, will carry over into her presidency.

The pressure will be even greater once Clinton is in office to “give her time” to carry out her agenda. There are already stories being floated in the media by Clinton supporters about how difficult it will be for her to get parts of her agenda through a Republican-dominated Congress–including her much-touted pledge to raise taxes on the rich.

Sanders was denigrated as unserious for proposing universal health care and free public college tuition, but the idea that Clinton will convince Congress to hike taxes on the rich is pure fantasy.

The Democratic Party will then insist that we turn our attention to the midterm elections, just in time for a fresh crop of Republican boogeymen to arise, as a reminder to liberals that whatever faults Clinton may have, we must, once again, rally around her lukewarm campaign to stop the “greater evil.”

And so the important work of building social movements is also delayed or put on hold while we work to continue to put Democrats in office in what we are always told is the “most important election of our lifetime.”

This is a vicious cycle that has paralyzed the broad left from forming independent organizations and political parties that can weather the ups and downs of the election season.

It has also circumscribed our political imaginations in terms of what is possible in the realm of political struggle. Too often our conception of politics begins and ends with the question of which political candidate will cause the least harm, when what we really need to be asking is “how do we get free?”

This isn’t to say that elections are unimportant, but we should also not overestimate their importance. The reason that most Americans don’t vote is because voting in these elections has almost no impact on their day-to-day lives.

Millions of people in this country are already living in the nightmarish world we are told would be unleashed if Trump were to become president. Millions live in poverty; millions toil in underpaid service jobs; millions cannot afford health care coverage; millions suffer the indignity and terror of eviction and homelessness; millions live in fear of police abuse and violence; millions fear the turmoil of deportation and fractured families.

But these are the issues that are systematically ignored during election season, because in the contest to see who will run the American empire, the needs of the poor, oppressed and exploited aren’t even secondary–they don’t register at all.

And so the task of the existing left is to continue to build the developing movements against police terror, for immigrant rights, for workers’ rights, for education justice and beyond. Not only do we have to build these movements in their own right, but we also must work harder to connect them and show how these issues all overlap and influence each other.

We need a larger movement in general to stop the roaring freight train of gross economic inequality, privatization and the impoverishment of millions of people in this country. Another world is possible, but we have to organize and fight for it.

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Bhaskar Sunkara

Founding editor, Jacobin magazine

I think that fundamentally, the Sanders campaign was a huge triumph.

It may sound funny to say that at this moment, when a lot of people are rightly disappointed by Bernie Sanders’ decision to endorse Hillary Clinton in such a full-throated way. But the reason why I supported Bernie Sanders from the beginning–and I obviously had disagreements with comrades in the International Socialist Organization and others on this issue–was because I thought a self-described democratic socialist pushing a social democratic program could open political space and possibilities.

I really think that’s been accomplished. For one, we’ve shown that there’s a real majority for our politics, and in the short term, for a social democratic program.

We’ve also shown that there is a fissure–and I think it’s been opened further–within the Democratic Party between the base of the party, especially young people who supported Bernie Sanders, and the party establishment. Obviously, a lot of the wounds that were opened up will be healed by the relentless drive of lesser evilism to support Hillary Clinton and the fearmongering about the prospects of a Trump presidency.

Nonetheless, I think that things have shifted in a certain direction which will leave some sort of base to the left of Clintonite liberalism in the Democratic Party. And that base is our future constituency for any sort of left politics.

If you combine that with the development of social movements such as Black Lives Matter and of other activity such as within trade unions, there have been some promising developments. Thus, I think all of us can say that as of August 2016, the prospects for building a left and a socialist opposition in the United States is stronger than it was one year ago today.

That said, the success in energizing people around the Sanders campaign may not translate immediately and directly in marshaling all these people and directing them toward the left and various non-electoral struggles right away. Instead, it represents a kind of terrain for the left for some time to come. These people will be the raw material and a receptive audience for us to continually engage with over the next five or 10 years.

It’s important that the left learn to relate to everyone. We have to figure out how to connect to the Bernie supporters who are following Sanders and will critically support Hillary Clinton. And I think it’s very important to relate to young people who are basically saying, for lack of a better term, fuck it, and refusing to support any establishment candidate, whether they are voting for Jill Stein or are staying home,

I think we need to relate to all those people while trying to keep alive the vision of the politics we want, which is independent class organization. We have the opportunity to push that line wherever we can.

I think there’s a real opportunity–particularly at the local level, in cities like New York and Chicago–to challenge Democrats. And it’s there that I think we need to aggressively push against the idea that the Democratic Party can be transformed and used in any shape or form.

Often, we rightly criticize attempts to transform the Democratic Party from within at the national level, so we rightly criticize, for example, Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton. But I think it’s a better use of the left’s efforts to organize independent political challenges at the local level, because we can actually, in many places, run viable, competitive campaigns for the City Council or for state Senate, and challenge the Democrats there.

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Jen Roesch

SocialistWorker.org contributor and member of the International Socialist Organization

Since the end of the primaries–and long before, actually–there has been a chorus of complaints from liberals about Bernie Sanders supporters who hesitated to fall in line behind Hillary Clinton. They have been derided as ridiculous, childish and entitled for failing to understand the realities of the system.

But their anger is fueled precisely by the fact that they do understand those realities.

Sanders spent the last year exposing the Democrats as a party of the wealthy and powerful. His supporters are right to be skeptical, even bitter, at the idea that a vote for Clinton will have any meaningful impact on their lives.

It isn’t simply that Clinton is the candidate of Wall Street. The inequality in this country is so widely felt that people instinctively understand this election will do little to change things–even those who hope that Clinton will at least do less damage than Trump.

There is a growing sense that the “radical political change” dismissed as unrealistic by Sanders critics is the only solution to the multiple crises we face. It is this deeper vein of anger–one that goes far beyond this election cycle–that Sanders tapped into. But for the generation of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, the Sanders campaign wasn’t its first attempt to fight for that change.

The last five years have seen many struggles that emerged seemingly out of nowhere, but receded just as quickly. It has been difficult to translate these into sustained movements capable of winning lasting reforms, let alone posing a challenge to the system. But theyhave had a cumulative impact on consciousness.

The Sanders campaign amplified this, but it also gave it a language–that of socialism. Interest in socialism has been growing for years, but few could have predicted how forcefully it would burst onto the political stage this year. Even if Sanders’ socialism is far from my vision of socialism from below, for millions of people, it has created a new way of thinking about the problems we face.

This provides a framework for talking about the interconnected nature of our struggles and the potential for solidarity. By putting forward demands for the redistribution of wealth, it can provide a bridge between the massive anger that people feel and the kinds of struggles that could bring them into organized activity.

But the question remains: With Sanders abandoning his call for a “political revolution” and joining in the celebration of Democratic Party unity, where do we go next?

Many people, including Sanders himself, believe we should draw the lesson that a socialist came close to winning the Democratic presidential nomination, and we should focus on running other progressive candidates.

But despite running arguably the most successful insurgent campaign the Democratic Party has seen, Sanders was unable to shift the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential campaign and message even slightly to the left.

Instead, Clinton boasts about her endorsements from war criminals, campaigns for Republicans votes and assures Wall Street that she is their best friend. Sanders has been relegated to using his popularity to shore up the left vote for everything he campaigned against.

To build on the radical potential of Sanders’ campaign, we must break from the Democrats. Jill Stein’s Green Party campaign is an important opportunity to register opposition to a system that tells us we deserve nothing better than the lesser of two evils.

But the most important steps lie outside the electoral arena. This year showed that there are massive numbers of people open to socialism who aren’t yet organized. We need to bring them into discussion and activity. Those who were inspired by Sanders are, in many ways, the potential future of a new socialist movement in this country.

But there is nothing inevitable about the conclusions people draw from their experiences–whether they become active and are convinced that their own self-activity is indispensable. The process of discussion, debate and organization is critical.

The austerity, racism and repression that have driven the radicalization haven’t gone away. They will continue to deepen, regardless of who wins the election. Fighting these will require sustained, democratic struggles involving masses of people around concrete demands. It will also require stronger and larger socialist organizations that can provide an alternative to the system as a whole.

None of this will be easy to accomplish. But we do know the best aspirations raised by Sanders’ campaign can’t be realized through the Democratic Party. The goal of the left should be to engage this new generation and create a political home for those who are ready to fight.

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Sarah Jaffe

Journalist and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt

In the last week or so, I’ve had several conversations with people who had spent a lot of time and energy on the Sanders campaign, wondering where to go next.

It’s a fair question. Presidential elections suck up all the air in the political space for the years that they take up, and as big donors spend more and more money on them, they expand to take up more and more time.

But actually, I think the most important work is done outside of the presidential arena. Sanders stepped into a space that had been created by tens of thousands of movement activists around the country, striking workers and Occupiers, and members of the movement for Black lives, and articulated something that had been in the air: Capitalism is not working for most people.

I think it’s worth saying that any campaign you put your heart into that loses will leave you feeling the need to grieve. That’s a human response.

But after that, where do we go? The genie, as they say, isn’t going back in the bottle. The anger and frustration and, most of all, hope for something better that people are feeling, the raised expectations, are still here, and they need to go somewhere.

That might be into local elections in cities and towns like the one where I live in New York’s Hudson Valley, where the energy that Sanders tapped into can go into making real change on a community level, electing people who see outside of the narrow choices that are on offer.

But more importantly, at least in my opinion, that energy can go into existing movements or into creating a new political force within the community that demands better of the power structures that exist.

People who just began to think about the way power is wielded in the workplace can come together to support workers struggles, walk picket lines, adopt stores as groups did during the Verizon workers strike. The demand for free college can go into organizing around student debt and for reinvestment in public higher education.

As the Affordable Care Act (ACA) continues to stumble and to be insufficient, Sanders’ call for single-payer health care can be renewed on a state level and in a national push for a public option, which is once again on the public mind as yet another private insurer pulls out of the ACA exchanges.

Even as the Sanders campaign grew and won millions of votes, plenty of movement activists continued to do work that had nothing to do with the presidential race.

Around the country, organizers with the movement for Black lives worked on local issues, defeated prosecutors who gave carte blanche to police who kill and also put together a platform, the Vision for Black Lives, that lays out demands for a truly free society, one in which not only state violence, but the economic violence of capitalism comes to an end.

The Sanders campaign was something we should understand as another iteration of the social movements that have rocked the U.S. and the world in the last several years.

It was not the beginning of the political revolution, and it will not be the end, as I have said elsewhere. But like every other part of the struggle that has happened, it has brought in new people who are frustrated with the world as it is and ready to take some risks to make it better.

Regardless of how they vote in November, what really matters is that they find ways to connect to the struggles that will continue no matter who is in the White House.

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Howie Hawkins

Green Party member and former Green candidate for governor of New York

The Sanders campaign revealed two realities that demonstrated the socialist left can build an independent mass party of the left.

First, the big Sanders vote demonstrated mass support for progressive social and economic policies. Second, the 2.5 million contributors who gave $230 million to Sanders’ campaign in small contributions revealed that the ordinary people will finance a political movement for progressive change on a scale that can compete with corporate candidates of the two-party system.

The Democratic Party will be a graveyard for Sanders’ demands. The Democratic Party is not only ideologically capitalist; it is structurally capitalist. The real power structure of the Democratic Party is a shifting coalition of entrepreneurial candidates and their campaign organizations that compete for donations (investments) from the corporate rich.

These campaign organizations trump party committees and platforms. Democratic candidates and politicians owe their investors, not formal party structures. If Sanders supporters enter this swamp, they will lose their very identity as an alternative.

The other swamp to avoid is a retreat to single-issue movements that try to pressure, instead of replace, the politicians of the two-corporate-party system.

The nonprofit industrial complex is another capitalist market where professional staffs compete for foundation and government grants whose ultimate source of funding is rich corporate donors to the foundations and the politicians. The power over who gets the grants pacifies these advocacy organizations, reducing them to supporting and lobbying Democrats for minor ameliorations. It is a divide-and-rule process that pits issues and constituencies against each other.

The Sanders campaign demonstrated that there is a mass base for different kind of politics–for a mass-membership party where party candidates and leaders are accountable to the membership and the platform they approve. Such a party can participate in or initiate movements demanding reforms with significant resources and organization that are accountable to a popular base, not corporate funders.

The mass-membership party, where formal members are organized into locals and finance the party with their dues, was an invention of the socialist left in the late 19th century. It was how the workers’ movement and its small farmer allies were able to build movements to win the universal franchise, to organize labor unions and cooperatives, and to effectively compete in elections against the older top-down parties of the landed and business elites that were based on their legislative caucuses and wealthy sponsors rather than a formal membership with democratic rights in their party.

The Democrats and Republicans are organized on the old top-down model favored by business elites. It is time to organize a democratic mass-membership party in opposition.

Supporting the Green Party presidential campaign of Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka should be next step in building a mass-membership party and the next step for Sanders supporters who want the “political revolution” to continue. A sizable Green vote will yield real gains.

First, the Green campaign is fulfilling is the traditional influential role of left third parties in American politics, which is to force popular demands that the two major parties are ignoring on to the legislative agenda. The Stein/Baraka campaign is keeping the Sanders’ domestic program in the national debate and adding the crucial missing piece in Sanders program, an anti-imperialist foreign policy.

Second, there are 37 state ballots where the Greens are up for qualification, needing 1 to 3 percent of the vote in most of those states. These ballots can be used by local candidates for municipal, county, state and federal office in coming elections. Most electoral districts in the U.S. are one-party districts due to bipartisan gerrymandering of safe seats for members of both corporate parties. The minority major party doesn’t compete seriously, if at all, in most of these districts. A left third party, with a relatively small core of activists, can quickly become the second party, the primary opposition party, in these districts and determine the policy debate.

Third, 5 percent of the vote qualifies the Green Party for public funding in the 2020 presidential general election. It starts at about $10 million for 5 percent and increases the higher the vote.

Fourth, the experience, organization and supporter lists developed in canvassing voters in support of the Stein/Baraka ticket can be used to build local movements and party organizations starting right after the November 8 election. The fight to defeat Trans-Pacific Partnership in the lame duck session of Congress begins on November 9. The process of building a mass party of the left from the bottom up continues right after the election.

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Amy Muldoon

Communications Workers of America member at Verizon and shop steward in New York City

The strike of 39,000 union members at Verizon in April and May got an invigorating boost from the attention that Bernie Sanders brought to it with his presidential campaign. But the strike in turn contributed something critical to the discussion of socialism that Sanders helped opened up: class struggle.

The Sanders campaign highlighted the progressive role that government could play in curtailing corporate greed and closing the wealth gap, but our strike showed how ordinary people could directly confront–and stop–the bosses’ assault on our living standards.

Since the strike, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to multiple audiences about how and why we were able to win. What I’ve seen is a serious interest in class politics, especially from young people who form the heart of the Sanders demographic.

However, people coming to politics today don’t have the experience or exposure to strikes and class struggle that earlier generations did. Unfortunately, there isn’t a wave of copycat strikes that can push a discussion forward about class power as the avenue for challenging the bosses and politicians that work for them.

I don’t think the radicalization that drove the Sanders campaign will evaporate, but it could go in many different directions.

Within the labor movement, the pointless loyalty to the Democrats is as thick as ever at the national leadership level. My union, the Communication Workers of America, was probably the largest labor organization to endorse Sanders. There was widespread support for Sanders, some of it very enthusiastic. The feeling that finally someone was talking class politics and actually walking the walk inspired more interest in the election than I’ve seen in years.

Since Clinton won the nomination, I’ve seen a lot of frustration with the attitude coming from the leadership–and liberal forces everywhere–that we have to vote for Clinton. More politically savvy members see voting for Clinton as a short-term stop in a longer fight to turn the Democrats back into a “party of the people.”

I doubt Clinton will have any kind of “honeymoon,” given how disliked she is pre-election. The strike and the Sanders campaign raised people’s expectations, and I don’t think you can put that genie back in the bottle. The nomination process may have blunted some of the optimism that the campaign inspired, but it sharpened the anger and clarity among a portion of Bernie supporters.

Unfortunately, the unions tend to be some of the most loyal adherents to the Democratic Party machine. Rumor has it that unions left the Working Families Party (WFP) in New York after the CWA–a driving force within the WFP–endorsed Sanders, even though Sanders voted with the Democratic Party line as an independent in the Senate more than many formal party members.

There has been a wave of leadership changes across local unions in the last five years, but the Democrats are still hegemonic, even among reformers. Assuming Clinton wins, she can expect a rocky term of office. Will the unions sit on the sidelines during protests? When, not if, the Trans-Pacific Partnership economic deal is approved, how will unions react?

We can’t answer these questions today, but we know the dissatisfaction with establishment politics that was exposed during the Sanders campaign lives on. Within the labor movement, this inevitably raises questions not only about the status quo in formal politics, but organizing the unorganized and negotiating contracts.

Raised expectations can turn into real change, if the left continues to transmit the lessons of actions like the Verizon strike to the broadest audience.