With the exception of Kshama Sawant, Bernie Sanders is the only socialist relevant to the American political landscape. He succeeded where his comrades failed by following a set of rules vastly different from the rules most self-proclaimed radicals adhere to.
Sanders has been and continues to be too busy fighting for working people as a mayor, Congressman, Senator, and now major party presidential candidate to do much reflecting on his decades of political experience. Like Malcolm X or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sanders is a fighter and a hands-on leader, not a writer or a theoretician. As such, he has never spelled out the essentials of his political method just as he has never written a white paper expounding the Sanders doctrine that governs his foreign policy decision-making.
However, unwritten rules are often the most important rules both in politics and in everyday life.
Since Sanders’ influence on national politics is peaking, now is the time to make explicit what has long been implicit in his political practice and outline what his rules for radicals are (provided the term ‘rules’ is understood to mean general guidelines rather than fixed dogma). Hopefully these rules will make it easier for others — radicals and not-so-radicals — to follow in his footsteps.
1. We Are the Majority, They Are the Radicals!
The most damaging thing for a radical — worse than vilification, persecution, or even betrayal — is political isolation, to be written off by the masses as a crank, a windbag, a lunatic, or an extremist. A radical without mass support (or at least mass sympathy) is a political eunuch incapable of fighting effectively for change no matter how just the cause.
When Sanders is accused of being a wild-eyed radical or extremist, he deftly deflects the accusation by rattling off position after position on issue after issue that commands either majority or supermajority support. This is not a gimmick — it is the foundation of Sanders’ entire approach to politics.
Championing the progressive needs, wants, and aspirations of the overwhelming majority of working and middle-class people and forcefully embracing positions and propositions so popular they are widely held to be inarguable or common sense does three critically important things:
- Attempts to stigmatize Sanders as an extremist and isolate him from his working-class base of support not only fail but backfire. This line of attack ends up making him look like the sane, reasonable moderate and his attackers the isolated out-of-touch radicals and extremists because they are attacking the desires of the vast majority.
- It creates unusually broad and firm common ground between constituencies (like rural whites) that usually vote Republican and Sanders as an avowed democratic socialist. This is how working and middle-class people with right-wing views on God, guns, gays, and abortion end up voting for the Senate’s most left-wing member even though he has never pandered to them by watering down his positions on those issues.
- This mass-based, mass-focused approach has enormous potential to inspire or spark self-activity and self-organization by ‘yooj’ numbers of working and middle-class people as they begin fighting to wrest control of politics and government from the billionaire class and other powerful vested interests in conjunction with Sanders. Karl Marx once described the workers’ movement as “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority” and that is the very essence of the political revolution Sanders is trying to stir up and ignite with his 2016 presidential campaign. To the old Maoist adage “from the masses, to the masses” Sanders has added “for the masses, by the masses.”
Sanders’ mass line method is how and why after three decades of campaigning in Vermont, he won his last Senate race in 2012 with 71% of the vote and enjoys a whopping 83% approval rating among his constituents. He is simultaneously the most left-wing and most popularly-supported member of the U.S. Senate.
2. Bring People Together to Take on Their Common Foes.
For Sanders, politics in a capitalist (or bourgeois) democracy is fundamentally about struggle. He sees the political process as a series of unending conflicts between Main Street and Wall Street, between Middle America and Corporate America, and it is precisely this structural division that creates both the necessity as well as the basis for unity.
To end the power of organized greed and corruption, Sanders wants everyone who agrees that big money has too much political influence — from pro-socialist millennials and liberal Democrats to small government conservatives and even evangelicals — to stand together and fight despite their disagreements on every other issue.
To combat global warming, Sanders supports uniting governments all over the world on a common, aggressive plan to limit carbon emissions and to transform their respective energy systems in spite of significantly different levels of industrialization between the U.S. and first world countries on the one hand and China, India, and third world countries on the other. This may not sound like class-struggle politics until you realize it means taking on the fossil fuel industry not just in one country but in all countries since they all have a vested interest in making sure oil, gas, and coal remain humanity’s main sources of energy.
To crush ISIS, Sanders wants to unite the efforts of the U.S. and its allies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan with the efforts of U.S. adversaries such as Iran and Russia, enormous differences between these two camps on the future of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad notwithstanding.
So whether it’s taking back government from the billionaire class, combating global warming, or fighting ISIS, Sanders practices coalition politics — bringing people together and uniting all who can be united to take on a given problem. In short, unite the many to defeat the few.
3. Forget About Grand Utopias and Focus Instead on Fighting for Policies that Improve People’s Day-to-Day lives in the Here-and-Now.
Philosophically Sanders is just as much a socialist as his hero Eugene Debs was. But unlike Debs, Sanders does not actively advocate the replacement of capitalism as a social system by a democratically planned economy — that is, socialism — on the campaign trail, in office, or anywhere else. Why? Because doing so directly conflicts with rules 1–3. Currently, socialism is not something the majority of working and middle-class people in the U.S. desire or pine for, socialist doctrine does not bring people together but splits them apart, and since discussions of socialism are incredibly divisive they function as a ‘yooj’ barrier to taking action against the billionaire class, the corrupt campaign financing system, the corporate media, or any opponent with real social power and significance.
Instead of droning on about grand utopias on the stump or in Senate speeches, Sanders focuses like a laser on struggling to improve the day-to-day lives of working and middle-class people and talks about nothing other than their utterly un-sexy, un-radical, un-revolutionary struggles to keep up with the bills, pay for medicine, go to the dentist, get the kids through college, or survive on less than $9,000 a year if they are elderly. So while really r-r-revolutionary socialists pack small classrooms to listen to esoteric lectures on the finer distinctions between Lenin and Trotsky and the evil calling itself
ISIS the Democratic Party, Sanders fills stadiums with tens of thousands of Americans eager to hear the gospel of 21st century class struggle.
Sanders’ speeches are filled words anyone with a sixth grade education can understand because he is always trying to communicate with a mass audience of millions. Fringe ‘left’ buzzwords like intersectionality, patriarchy, heteronormative, statist, neoliberalism, and privilege theory have no place in his vocabulary since using these words runs afoul of rules 1–4 and would reduce the size of his potential audience from tens of millions to the low thousands.
5. Make ‘Em an Offer They Can’t Refuse
Sanders has a knack for framing his proposals and propositions in a way that makes it difficult for both potential supporters and diehard opponents to say no to. By arguing for the inarguable, he maximizes the potential mass support his proposals will generate and minimizes the ability of defenders of the status quo to successfully resist.
6. Act Local, Think Global
Radicals, frustrated by decidedly un-radical conditions in the United States and the un-radical struggles over basics like wages, hours, benefits, and affordable housing that such conditions give rise to, often become infatuated with more radical struggles abroad in Palestine, Rojava, or Latin America and neglect the difficult, unglamorous task of organizing middle and working-class people at the grassroots level to fight for their interests on the terrain of local politics and government.
Sanders never fell into this trap because rule 4 kept him focused not only on issues close to home but on people close to home — friends, neighbors, co-workers, and residents of local neighborhoods. But as mayor of Burlington, his focus on winning fights for affordable housing and stopping the gentrification of the waterfront did not mean surrendering or even compromising on his internationalism. He made sure Burlington had a foreign policy — pro-peace, anti-Cold War, and pro-Sandinista.
So while most radicals disdain or dismiss local politics perhaps in favor of small local solidarity committees with their favored causes abroad in accordance with the slogan “think global, act local,” Sanders integrated his internationalist outlook with his role in local class struggle at the grassroots as an activist public official in accordance with the slogan “act local, think global.”
7. Raise Consciousness Relentlessly
For too many radicals, consciousness-raising is an exercise in pseudo-intellectual masturbation rather than a process of genuine dialogue with and political enlightenment of the masses.
Not so with Sanders.
Long before deciding to run for president, Sanders habitually held town halls in the city of Burlington and all over Vermont not only to inform people and get them engaged about the latest political developments but to put big questions on the table about U.S. foreign policy, Wall Street criminality, and the realities of daily life under Europe’s democratic socialist and labor governments.
Sanders wants every single person — regardless of their views — to be politically engaged, to vote and works tirelessly to ensure that they are all high-information voters fluent in all the major issues of the day. The more middle-class and working people are politically disengaged and ignorant, the easier it is for big money to control the political system and rig the economy at the expense of the people both should serve.