Debates within the realm of mainstream bourgeois politics are largely about style and rhetoric over substance. This probably goes double in the case of presidential primaries, where the goal is more to rally enough of a party’s core groups of supporters in preparation for the general election fight. Candidates do outline policy agendas in this process, but such agendas – particularly in the case of “progressive” policies from the Democratic Party – inevitably get jettisoned with the rush to the center during the general election, not to mention afterwards. It’s useful to keep these ideas in mind when assessing people who are seen has left primary challengers in the Democratic Party, particularly Bernie Sanders’ run against Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination. While the quality of Bernie Sanders’ “socialism” has been debated ever since he became even somewhat known on the national stage, the fact that the (current) main left challenger to Hillary Clinton at least self-describes as a socialist is important in some ways.1 Primarily, it addresses the successes, limited and partial though they are, of movements and campaigns like Occupy, Sawant, and others, to put at least the general concept of socialism back into wide-scale politics. With socialism as an idea now popular among broader segments of the population, some sort of response is required to rein that sentiment into channels that pose as little threat to the social and political order as possible.
A recent similar example would be the Kucinich campaign in 2004. Kucinich was operating on similar political terrain as Bernie Sanders – a Democratic Party presidential primary – seeking to give voice to a popular idea that had some sort of mass movement behind it and re-direct it into politically acceptable channels. Certainly, the specific movements being responded to were different – Kucinich was playing the role of the “peace candidate” attempting to represent the anti-war movement, whereas Sanders, as the “socialist candidate” or “economic justice candidate” seeks to represent the broad current of people (probably larger but less organized than the anti-war movement of 2002-2004) who have been brought into movements like Occupy and its relatives. That said, the role of each candidate in their respective primaries is similar enough that the general trajectory of the Kucinich campaign can be instructive in figuring out how the Sanders campaign is likely to progress, which will likely be roughly as follows:
1) Gain a reasonable degree of popular support among sections of the populace who have been active in broadly-defined progressive social movements in the past 3-5 years, particularly those campaigns seeking to address economic inequality (Occupy, the various minimum wage increase campaigns, and so on.) This will also include sections of the organized left, both in its radical liberal forms (Greens and others), and its socialist forms.
2) Do well enough in some primary states to reinforce a hold over the aforementioned groups and project the idea that it is better/more effective to fight for progressive social change within the context of Democratic Party politics as opposed to an independent political force. In this sense, it seems possible that Sanders does better than Kucinich in this regard, at least in terms of votes won in primaries, as at this point Sanders is the only official challenger to Hillary Clinton. This will probably change over the next six months, which may eat into Sanders’ vote totals as a result, but Sanders still seems to have an advantage here that Kucinich didn’t in 2004.
3) Either drop out of the race before the Democratic National Convention and endorse the frontrunner, or declare support for the eventual nominee during/immediately after the DNC, on the argument that, given the choice between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, it will be more possible to fight for the issues that the Sanders campaign has raised with Democrats in power than with Republicans in power, based on some combination of the Democrats either being the more natural constituency for progressive politics and/or the Democrats being more susceptible to pressure from the left (two very closely linked, but ultimately separate arguments.) While the entirety of the base that the Sanders campaign has built won’t go along with this, a large enough majority likely will so that the Democrats’ left flank is sufficiently secured, and the rest of the presidential campaign can be spent on attacking Republicans, wooing “moderates,” and ensuring their patrons in the capitalist class that the presence of a left constituency within the Democratic Party won’t be a major threat to them.
All in all, not a very rosy picture for people who want to see a movement that stands simply even for representing the working class as an independent political force, much less those of us who see such a movement as a means by which the working class can take power and completely remake society. Nonetheless, the introduction of socialism as an idea into the 2016 presidential elections via the Bernie Sanders campaign does provide a possibility to talk to people about socialism as the first major step towards a radically different form of society, as opposed to socialism as merely a set of strengthened social welfare policies and marginally renewed democratic politics. In this sense, and in this sense only, the Sanders campaign may provide some positive, albeit limited, opening for the socialist left. Even this isn’t going to produce wide-scale results overnight, because it will take a while to even simply win the argument of a politically independent movement versus one that consigns itself to working within the Democratic Party and the “left wing of the possible” more generally.
Put more generally, the importance of Bernie Sanders the person will likely be limited to the end of the Democratic primary season. But, the importance of his supporters – particularly those who call themselves socialists – will have a greater longevity than Sanders’ presidential campaign, and what they think, say, and do may help shape the character of socialist politics over the coming years. And while Sanders himself, given his own politics and relationships with political parties will probably not be part of a hypothetical mass socialist/communist party (or even a nearer-term united left party that doesn’t yet have a mass base), some section of his current supporters likely will be. And the quality of that party will, at least in part, be determined by the ability of communists to have and win (or at least advance) the arguments about political independence, strategy, and program in the near future.
1Certainly, we in the Red Party take sharp issue with any conception of socialism that limits itself to “Scandinavian-style” welfare policies and other primarily economic questions, rather than the primarily political task of the overthrow of the capitalist state as the first concrete step towards the liberation of all humanity.