The three and a half decades following 1980 were an indescribably bleak period for radicals. In the United States, the labor movement was decimated, the organized left became a collection of reading groups, and virtually every socialist project collapsed or reformed along gradualist lines. Neoliberalism and US hegemony were ascendant, political discourse lurched to the right throughout the West, and many began declaring that the End of History had arrived. As far as anyone could tell, the fair trade vegan leather boot of Progress would stomp on the human face until the end of time. But to many people's surprise, the neoliberal world order’s reckoning came in 2008, when the global economy was sent into a recession by the bursting of a housing bubble.
On the surface, the capitalist system was granted a reprieve in the election of Barack Obama, who bailed out the financial institutions responsible for the crisis, made the Bush tax cuts permanent, and judiciously maintained US hegemony. This reprieve was only temporary, however. The consequences of nearly 30 years of stagnant wages, rising living costs, high military expenditures, and increasing social atomization would come to a head in 2016, when a wave of anti-establishment sentiment fueled the Primary campaigns of two unlikely presidential candidates. Donald Trump — the one who would go on to prevail in both the primary and general election — branded himself as a white nationalist and drew his support from the reactionary “patriot movement” milieu.
The other politician, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders — who would eventually be thwarted by the Democratic Party’s establishment — was unique. Sanders’ platform spoke to the demands of the beleaguered American working class and captured the imagination of a demoralized and downwardly mobile younger generation, but unlike previous “progressive” Democratic Primary contenders, he identified as a “democratic socialist”. The significance of this, taking into account the deep seated anti-communism of American political culture, should not be understated. Many of his supporters, especially those with no cultural memory of the Cold War, began embracing socialism as a political identity. The Democratic Socialists of America and other previously obscure socialist organizations experienced massive increases in their membership thanks to this newfound interest in the dreaded “S”-word. Sanders’ defeat in the 2020 Democratic primary has placed this movement in uncharted territory, but his embrace of mass politics, rejection of the neoliberal status quo, and massive popularity showed the potential of collective action and dramatically expanded the horizon of collective political imagination.
Today, the word socialism once again represents a real political program rather than third world dictatorships. The substance of this politics, however, is not a thoroughgoing critique of capitalism as a mode of production, but a program of social democratic reform. To Sanders, Medicare for All, free public college, and high corporate taxes are not transitional demands but constitutive of democratic socialism as an economic system. The liberal and reformist content of Sanders’ socialism is apparent even to those who saw his campaign as the left’s path to power. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously remarked in an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that democratic socialism and capitalism are compatible.
It goes without saying that the gradualist politics of the “radical left” is the subject of much sturm und drang among leftists. Strangely enough, this skepticism toward the Democratic Party’s left wing exists alongside the general notion that the popularity of Sanders et al. is reflective of the American working class’ growing militancy. To many, the movement behind Sanders is radical and anti-capitalist, despite the reformist and liberal content of his politics. Surveys showing growing approval among millennials or other demographics for “socialism” are cited as evidence of the masses rejecting capitalism, even though this “socialism” is a laundry list of social programs that exist in most wealthy capitalist countries.
This optimism is not only unwarranted, but ultimately an obstacle to building a broad base working class movement. Serious and useful political work cannot be undertaken without a correct understanding of the present moment. In the wake of the recession brought about by COVID-19, millions have been left unemployed or facing eviction, and more people are feeding themselves through food banks than ever. These conditions, coupled with the pervasiveness of police brutality, have led to a series of major uprisings in US cities. While these inspiring acts of resistance reflect deep seated discontent, particularly among the Black working class population, they remain disconnected from a coherent political program.
The organs, structures, and institutions necessary to merge anti-capitalist politics with the immediate demands of the working class and articulate such a program are nonexistent. There is no socialist movement. Marxism-Leninism, Anarchism, Left Communism, and every other historical tendency represented on the modern left are not actually existing political currents, but subcultures. No more is at stake in debates over the finer points of value-form theory than there is in debates about the Star Wars canon. This reality is obscured by the conflation of the historical socialist movement with the modern social democratic movement in leftist discourse.
The problem, however, is not that socialists have failed to effectively police the content of “socialism,” but that the absence of socialist politics from real political life has made its meaning a site of ideological struggle. The preoccupation of the left with this struggle is a form of what Asad Haider calls affective investment in the necessity of the existing political order. At the root of this affective investment is the left’s failure to maintain the communist hypothesis: that is, “the belief that the existing world is not necessary”. This rejection of the socialist project’s animating force took place in the context of the failure of 20th century socialism and the collapse of the organized left in the United States. The consequence of this rejection was the depoliticization of the left.
Socialist praxis became a process of negotiation with the circumstances of the political context rather than the project of changing them. The left’s preoccupation with policing the contours of political identities, investment in the factional politics of capitalist parties, and pathological obsession with historical debate divorced from any discussion of praxis are all symptoms of depoliticization. This preoccupation with and overinvestment in political identities is self-reinforcing in a sense, as identification with historical socialist tendencies is posed as the solution to the left’s contemporary situation. To these partisans of socialism’s past, the working class’ current state of disorganization can only be ameliorated through strict adherence to the Immortal Science of whatever strikes their fancy. While there is much to be gained from study of the theory and historical experience of past revolutionaries, something is missing from the politics of these partisans.
Their dogmatism belies a failure to grapple with the ways in which these tendencies, while drawing from a tradition, conceived of new modes of politics and articulated them in terms of their immediate conditions. The wide chasm between the Bordigists, Maoists, and other tendencies of yesterday, and their extant ideological descendants, and the alienation of the latter from real political life are both marked by this failure. Equally troublesome is the tendency of some who avoid this trap of dogmatism while succumbing to a quasi-millenarian obsession with crisis divorced from concrete political action. These “#LineGoesDown” doomsday prophets, ideologically diverse as they may be, share the assumption that crisis itself will bring about working class militancy and revolution subsequently. The decay of capitalism in the 21st century will undoubtedly have far reaching consequences, but the development of a radical working class movement is not a guarantee.
Understanding the temporal proximity and nature of the coming crisis is only valuable insofar as it allows socialists to chart a path forward to building a better world. It would of course be unwise to ignore the outsized role social media has played in the development of “Line Goes Down” and other left subcultures, creating echo chambers reinforced by social cliques and the human desire for belonging. Naturally, these echo chambers insulate those within them from the sentiments, prejudices and opinions common among those outside of them. This dynamic with regards to the subcultural left can be seen in the surprise Bernie Sanders’ defeats in the later 2020 primaries were met with. While it is true that Sanders polled well among white “blue collar” voters and minorities broadly speaking, it’s obvious now that his victory wasn’t inevitable.
Before his victory in Nevada, Sanders’ success was a long shot to the majority of people not regularly exposed to the online left and its organs. While the subcultural left assured itself that Sanders’ victory was inevitable, the American public was being constantly barraged with opinion pieces, night time news segments, and articles about how radical and unpopular he was — which ultimately turned many against him. This disconnect obviously speaks to the ways in which those who espouse working class politics are in some ways out of touch from the real politics of the working class. Interestingly, there’s a form of self-awareness of this detachment that manifests itself in the internecine conflicts of the online left. Arguments over virtually everything are invariably accompanied by accusations of one interlocutor or another being an out-of-touch grad student (unlike the accuser, who truly has their finger on the pulse!).
Ultimately, these trends all point to the same impasse: a subcultural left with politics and theoretical output divorced from real political struggle. If this impasse is to be overcome, the left must recommit itself to the idea that a better world is possible, and, in doing so, begin to conceive of new modes of politics. There can be no creative process of forging new modes of politics without a political agent. The task ahead is that of building the vehicles through which the political agency of the working class can be realized.
What do these organs of working class self organization look like? From the workers council of the Paris Commune to the Russian soviets, the backbone of the real movement throughout history has always been democratic and egalitarian institutions of the working class responsive to the changing conditions of struggle. Labor unions and federations played a crucial role in cohering workers into a political bloc in nearly every revolutionary moment and may very well do the same today. But while the lessons of history can furnish contemporary revolutionaries with many useful insights, replicating past organizational forms will not address the unique conditions of the moment. The revolutionary unions, self-defense organizations, and mutual aid groups of today must fold explicitly anti-racist, anti-imperialist, eco-socialist political education into their work in engaging and creative ways. They must also contribute to the struggles of workers around the world in real and meaningful ways so that the revolution is international in its size and scope.
Many cities are experiencing homelessness crises, and in the wake of the recession, over 64 million people are at risk of eviction. There is an urgent need for strong tenant unions that can organize massive rent strikes and community organizations capable of stopping evictions. Those groups alone, however, won’t address exorbitant healthcare costs, under-resourced schools, police brutality, or prison slavery. Labor unions, tenant associations, and other community organizations must be the base from which working class political organizations capable of direct confrontation with the capitalist state are formed. The shape of these political organizations can only be found through continuous process of practice, theorization, and application. There has never been a more urgent need for new projects, new theory, and new visions of working class politics. The true terrain of ideological struggle lies here, and the victory of the proletarian political line will lead us from the morass of depoliticization and the unreality of radical politics to a better future.