Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 16, 2020

What does Bernie Sanders mean by political revolution, anyway?

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:42 pm

Something’s been nagging away at me for the longest time. I was reminded of it when reading Daniel Denvir’s “What a Bernie Sanders Presidency Would Look Like”, article number 7,631 reminding Jacobin’s readers to vote for the democratic socialist. He writes:

Sanders consistently argues, “Beating Trump is not good enough.” This is an understatement. The world quite literally depends upon a political revolution. And only Sanders has a plan for that.

So, what exactly does a political revolution involve? Outside of the Trotskyist movement, Marxism does not refer at all to such a phenomenon. Whether it is people who come out of the pro-Moscow, pro-Beijing, or pro-Coyoacán cathedrals, the word revolution stands on its own. It is qualified by bourgeois or socialist, with France 1789 or Russia 1917 being accepted by all Marxists as examples of such revolutions.

For Trotsky’s followers, the term political revolution entered the vocabulary as a way of describing mass movements trying to overturn Stalinist bureaucracies but that left post-capitalist economic structures intact. Suffice it to say that there have only been attempts at consummating a political revolution, such as Czechoslovakia in 1968. Generally, such movements have either petered out or been suppressed, leaving behind a passive, undemocratic, neoliberal regime in their place.

You can find numerous references to political revolution in Jacobin, a journal that, in its fan-boy (except for Meagan Day) devotion to Bernie Sanders, refers to it as constantly and as fervently as Maoist newspapers of the 1960s referred to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

For Branco Marcetic, it is tantamount to seizing power as indicated by the title of his article “Bernie’s First Political Revolution” that puts his election as Mayor of Burlington in 1981 almost on the same level as Fidel Castro riding victoriously on a tank into Havana in 1960. A “a deeply entrenched city establishment” was replaced by one that would “place that power in the hands of the working people of the city”, according to Sanders—making it sound like the Paris Commune to continue with the analogies. Sanders did push through some badly needed reforms, such as adjusting the property tax burden to fall more on corporations than on homeowners. While the local New England Telephone Company was probably pissed off about paying higher property taxes, I doubt that they worried much about being nationalized like the oil refineries in Castro’s Cuba. When Shell Oil refused to pay the new, higher taxes needed to build socialism, he made their refinery public property. That’s what you call a real revolution.

For Keeanga-Yamahtta and Taylor Maurice Mitchell, the political revolution was the election campaign of Working Families Party (WFP) candidates Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke who were running for city council in Philadelphia last November. Brooks and O’Rourke promised “affordable housing, school funding, wages, and a local Green New Deal.” I am not exactly sure if promising “wages” is particularly revolutionary but perhaps the Jacobin authors were just overlooked by the eagle-eyed editorial assistants at America’s leading democratic socialist journal. With respect to the WFP, I don’t want to sound like a Debbie Downer but it is not exactly the kind of party that has revolution on the agenda, either in Sandernista or Marxist terms. In 2018, the NY WFP, the most powerful in the country, allowed Andrew Cuomo’s name to appear on their ballot. To return the favor, he pushed for a new law that would make getting ballot status so onerous that it effectively shut off the electoral access to any party to the DP’s left.

In Jacobin’s most recent contribution to political revolution theory, Chris Maisano maintains that “If we want to make Bernie Sanders’s political revolution a reality, we can’t just propose bold policies to make people’s lives better — we have to rebuild popular confidence in the possibilities of politics itself. And we can’t rebuild that confidence without democratizing the United States’s decidedly undemocratic political institutions.”

Written as a way of avoiding Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to be elected, Maisano urges the Sandernista movement to avoid his big mistake: tending not “to foreground a vision of radical democratic reform and popular political empowerment.” Yes, Corbyn did propose economic benefits to the working-class but as long as they remained alienated from electoral politics, there was always the danger that they would vote for a slug like Boris Johnson. To avoid Donald Trump beating Bernie Sanders in 2020, it is not sufficient to call for Medicare for all. You must energize the masses, something that Sanders has made happen:

Sanders has made a massive contribution to the cause of political regeneration by introducing the concept of “political revolution” to American political discourse. This is the sort of overarching, integrating theme the Corbynite project lacked and which the British right found in Brexit. It also differentiates him from Democratic Party politicians who have no problem proposing ambitious spending programs but lack Bernie’s lifelong commitment to a genuinely insurgent, anti-establishment brand of politics.

Looking back into American history, Maisano believes that the abolitionist movement could be a guide to fleshing out “political regeneration”:

How might we start making “government of the people, by the people, for the people” a substantive reality and not just a line from a textbook? One possibility is the formation of a convention movement to discuss and promote measures for overhauling our country’s broken political system. It would take inspiration from the Colored Conventions Movement that swept northern black communities before the Civil War, which articulated numerous demands and promoted the establishment of new political organizations. These would be informal gatherings lacking official sanction, but over time they could potentially gain legitimacy and serve as a source of popular pressure and demands that politicians would ignore at their peril.

This historical reference brings us back to the question of how Marxists view the term revolution. For them, it boils down to class war with the stakes of property relations placed on the agenda with burning intensity. For black Americans, this meant abolishing slavery as part of a thorough-going bourgeois revolution that placed the class interests of northern industrialists, yeoman farmers, workers, and slaves above that of the plantation owners bent on extending their form of property relations into the western states.

If you were serious about taking inspiration from the Colored Conventions Movement, you’d have to make abolishing wage slavery a top priority even if it discomfited Nancy Pelosi or Tom Steyer for that matter. That’s what Eugene V. Debs campaigns stressed, after all. The democratic socialist—or I should say, revolutionary socialist—who would never resort to circumlocutions like a “political revolution” that boiled down to electing progressive Democrats, WFP’ers or any other careerist hoping to make the kinds of millions that Bernie Sanders has stashed away.

IN THE struggle of the working class to free itself from wage slavery it cannot be repeated too often that everything depends upon the working class itself. The simple question is, can the workers fit themselves, by education, organization, co-operation and self-imposed discipline, to take control of the productive forces and manage industry in the interest of the people and for the benefit of society? That is all there is to it.

The capitalist theory is that labor is, always has been, and always will be, “hands” merely; that it needs a “head,” the head of a capitalist, to hire it, set it to work, boss it, drive it and exploit it, and that without the capitalist “head” labor would be unemployed, helpless, and starve; and, sad to say, a great majority of wage-workers, in their ignorance, still share in that opinion. They use their hands only to produce wealth for the capitalist who uses his head only, scarcely conscious that they have heads of their own and that if they only used their heads as well as their hands the capitalist would have to use his hands as well as his head, and then there would be no “bosses” and no “hands,” but men instead—free men, employing themselves co-operatively under regulations of their own, taking to themselves all the products of their labor and shortening the work day as machinery increased their productive capacity.

Such a change would be marvelously beneficial all around. The idle capitalists and brutal bosses would disappear; all would be useful workers, have steady employment, fit houses to live in, plenty to eat and wear, and leisure time enough to enjoy life.

That is the Socialist theory and what Socialists are fighting for and are ready to live and die for.

–Eugene V. Debs, “Labor’s Struggle For Supremacy”, International Socialist Review , Vol. XII, No. 3. September 1911



  1. A political revolution would necessarily have to entail a radical restructuring/elimination of the existing political structures while not altering the economic foundations of this capitalist society. That’s all he seems to be saying. Rooseveltian reforms, as he has said repeatedly. I think it would be good if many of those Rooseveltian reforms could be brought back. However, there were little matters like the Smith Act and World War II and nuclear weapons development. Sanders doesn’t speak about those things.

    Comment by walterlx — January 17, 2020 @ 12:22 am

  2. The primary feature of Sanders’ campaign is its emphasis upon mass participation and mass financial support. In regard to this first feature, his campaign recalls the McCarthy and McGovern efforts. In regard to the second, the campaign does point towards a possible feature in which the financing of political campaigns by large numbers of people undermines establishment ones based upon corporate donors. But there is nothing about this that necessarily moves the political system leftward, it could just as easily empower right wing demagogues.

    As for policy, walterix has it right. Bernie himself has said so many times. While I hate to give credibility to DNC types, the likelihood of Bernie implementing his policies in the current political climate is slight. He is simply not combative enough to force entrenched corporate political operatives, people like Pelosi, Schumer and Durbin, among others, to guide his agenda through Congress. He thinks, or wants us to believe, that he can accomplish it through persuasion and popular mobilization. it’s implausible. Ultimately, Sanders is an exercise in socioeconomic symbolism, a rebranding of US capitalism as possessing social welfare qualities, when, in fact, it continues onward as it has before.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 17, 2020 @ 3:48 am

  3. Thanks for having this opportunity to give some comments. As an old leftest ( Marxist orientation (I had subject Marxism in year 12 and also two years at university, but personally folwed Praxis https://www.marxists.org/subject/praxis/index.htm and Korcula school https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Praxis_School, when one of the main philosopher Milan Kangrga said after Yugoslav “socialism” officially was finished in 91, that we did not have S of SOCIALISM) who lived under so-called socialism in Yugoslavia for 40 years and after that we had civil wars for 4 years. I am pessimistic about the idea of socialism or some kind of socialist revolution. I think Marx was too optimistic in believing that will ordinary people start a revolution and make a big change. Maybe when ” “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains” but know proletariat have TV entertainments, internet, Facebook, Youtube and .., which is now by clever algorithms tailored ( manipulated) to his needs or to create new ones. we are now in a stage of ” panem et circense “. The real active left does do not have a chance to have a majority and only by having a majority it can try to change society by his movement. People could be easily manipulated ( Great Britan elections, The far-right taking power Poland, Hungary, Italy, Russia, not want to mention a sad case in former Yugoslav states). Fashism has more chances to succeed. than socialism. Sanders can maybe succeed to be elected but to make the change he needs that revolution ( that majority of the population take part in a big political left movement), which I think is not possible now and in the future.

    Comment by Yugoslav — January 17, 2020 @ 7:57 am

  4. Assuming, arguendo, that socialism was ever a cause that could achieve its political and social aims, that is not the world in the making. The world in the making pivots on intelligent technology and biotechnology. The end game of that still inchoate world really has no workers at all in any sense that a socialist, liberal, conservative or fascist would understand. In fact, that world will be inhabited by a vast mass of people who are more likely to be, from the perspective of those who govern, entirely superfluous and easily controlled or disposed of, entirely at the whim of those governors. If that world comes into being, socialism (but also liberalism, fascism and the rest of the now existing “isms”) will be an irrelevancy as socialism relates to workers while the world that is coming will be defined by the absence of workers. And, even if that world does not come into being, the role and number of the worker in society will almost certainly diminish dramatically along with the ability of those who control society to manipulate those remaining workers.

    Be that as it all may, the virtues of revolution in the socialist sense with reference to workers – and assuming, arguendo, that the role of workers in society actually remains significant – are difficult to understand. It is the failure of such type of revolutions thus far to improve the lives of those impacted by such revolutions that is significant.

    People will always have the same human nature before and after such a revolution. So, the societies created will have humans who retain the same foibles, different abilities, different interests, etc., etc. There are thus certain inherent problems that are beyond the ability of humanity, whether there is a liberal, socialist, conservative, fascist, etc., etc., type of politics, to resolve. Socialist revolutions have thus far empowered people with a religious zeal that has led to police states, mass starvation, mass murder, etc., etc. Perhaps the next generation of revolutionaries – including people like Bernie – will have learned something from past failures and realize that a bit more introspection, a lot less zealotry, a lot less certainty, etc. is needed.

    Comment by Neal — January 17, 2020 @ 1:55 pm

  5. My sentence above that reads: “And, even if that world does not come into being, the role and number of the worker in society will almost certainly diminish dramatically along with the ability of those who control society to manipulate those remaining workers” has an error in it. The sentence should read: “And, even if that world does not come into being, the role and number of the worker in society will almost certainly diminish dramatically along with an increase in the ability of those who control society to manipulate those remaining workers.”

    Comment by Neal — January 17, 2020 @ 2:00 pm

  6. The Jacobin milieu is obsessed with uplifting Sanders since he “represents a dramatic departure from the neoliberal Democratic consensus”.  It’s as if they’ve championed Fisher’s capitalist realism to the degree that they’ve lobotomized themselves and can’t imagine anything beyond Bernie’s bourgeois socialism.  The worse problem with this mindset is it doesn’t even play out the game theory of when Sanders loses, and the left is browbeat in to supporting Biden or Warren or Buttigieg, and all the air in the “political revolution” leaks out of the balloon.

    Comment by Aaron — January 17, 2020 @ 4:15 pm

  7. I keep saying this, but a major issue with the Sanders “political revolution” is where the people can turn if and when it fails at the polls, is coopted into nothingness, or meets the fate of Allende. The formless mass of committees to elect and other committees for this and that and the body of elected officials and wealthy donors that constitute an American political party–really the all-but-uncharted intersection of innumerable secret Farley files–will not protect or advance the peoples’ interests outside the narrow boundaries of the electoral process.

    A true party–something Americans have been taught from birth to despise and fear–would be a very different presence in people’s lives from this weak hallucination.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 17, 2020 @ 10:26 pm

  8. “Outside of the Trotskyist movement, Marxism does not refer at all to such a phenomenon.”

    Trots are not Marxists. That’s why they call themselves Trots and not Marxists.

    Comment by Janet Avery — January 18, 2020 @ 12:56 pm

  9. Janet, stop being stupid.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 18, 2020 @ 1:01 pm

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