Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders says that now is the time for “political revolution.” As a campaign slogan, it is catchy, and the evidence from the only two (and disproportionately white) states to vote in the primaries thus far is that it is catching on. Young people especially are flocking to Sanders and to his message of “political revolution.” But are the Sanders supporters (and the Senator himself) correct about the timing? Is it, indeed, really time for a “political revolution”?
I myself am a socialist, of the variety referred to within the large and diverse leftist community as a “trade union socialist.” We believe in the formation and use of democratic union organizations as a foundation of pushing through a greater democratization of both our economy and our government. In the United States, trade-union socialists generally vote Democrat (or for the Green Party in local elections); as have I specifically. Trade-union socialists are the primary constituency of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that has had a long and friendly relationship with Senator Sanders (a contributor to DSA newsletters, and of DSA values). Sanders has for years been our spearhead. He has pushed moderate socialist ideals into the legislative conversation. Despite being an independent (still so listed in the Senate), he has also pushed actual Democrats into remembering and representing their leftist values. Sanders has had a bountiful impact on American politics.
However, I disagree with the Senator about the timing of political revolution. I have historical reasons, as well as concerns after viewing the past few years of politics. Over a century ago, from 1904 to 1905, the Russian Empire was at war with Japan. The war did not go well for Russia, despite having an overwhelmingly larger army and navy. The new Japanese military operated on far more modern theories of war, and emphasized much greater modernized training than was found in the Russian military. After repeated military setbacks, in January of 1905, a revolution began in Russia, mostly spontaneously. The peasants (who formed the bulk of the personnel in the military, as well as the country’s population) rose up against the regime in protest against the great bloodshed among their own.
The organization that became the Communist Party (at the time called the Russian Socialist Democratic Labor Party, or RSDLP) had already fragmented into a small, radical “Bolshevik” group (led by Lenin); and a larger, more moderate “Menshevik” group (of whom Trotsky was a prominent spokesperson). With a revolution apparently happening all by itself, the socialists considered what to do about it. Trotsky saw that the rising was the people’s way of telling the socialists that now was the time. He also saw it necessary to take the reins and lead the rising so that it ended not in defeat, bloodshed, and more repression; but instead with some measure of democratization of Russian society and government.
Lenin disagreed. He looked at the rising, by traditionally conservative peasants (the Russian Orthodox Church itself had many clergy acting as leaders of the rising), not as a good sign but as an omen that the people were not ready, and now was not the time to agitate. He saw a peasant revolution in 1905 as likely to take Russia backwards rather than forward. The RSDLP largely agreed, regardless of the factional split. Their concept of revolution was based on modernized, urban industrial workers, not the peasants; and the workers were still a relatively tiny sector of the population. They feared that conservative peasants would oppose educational reforms, modernization of the economy and infrastructure, and the development of a more inclusive culture (all of which were key platforms for the RSDLP). Ultimately, the RSDLP stood aside, while a smaller faction followed Trotsky into the revolution and into the new Russian government. In little time, the Revolution of 1905 was unmade as the Tsar showed himself disinterested in working with a more democratic government. Finally, World War I erased almost all of what little good the revolution accomplished; and a new revolution (two, in fact) took place in 1917.
The Russian Revolution of 1905 has great relevance to Sanders’s idea of “political revolution.” Many Americans are, like the Russian peasants of 1905, very conservative; distrusting of outsiders, and of new ideas. Consider the past few years, as Democrats have used the power of the White House, of the Congress before 2014, and of new social media venues, to try building a greater City on a Hill. In the meantime, we have seen great push-back. How much does the Black Lives Matter movement resonate among white voters? The movement argues only that blacks should not be needlessly targeted for violent reactions by the police. Is that a “radical” suggestion? How many Americans, after the BLM campaign, clung ever more tightly to the Confederate Battle Flag as a symbol of the racist America they wanted to maintain? How hard has Planned Parenthood and other women’s health organizations had to fight – not for an expansion of services, but only to continue those services legally guaranteed by Roe v. Wade? Furthermore, it took the US Supreme Court to overturn “marriage amendments” across the nation; and when a Kentucky county clerk told the Court they could go stuff it, a massive upswelling of support stood behind her. There is still a discouraging proportion of Americans who hate Obama for no other reason than that they still see his color, and political power, as indicative that he is not even American, or Christian (and we will move past the further point of why his being Christian should even matter in a nation that pretends to value “religious freedom”). These people will all be voting in 2016; and in the mid-terms in 2018. How much “political revolution” can we expect from these voters? And what kind of revolution do you expect to see from frightened, and frighteningly well armed, white men?
Sanders is not the only candidate promising political revolution. Donald Trump has created a movement of trumpenproletariat from whole cloth, from segments of the population that rarely vote. By moving increasingly conservative and xenophobic people to the polls, his promise to “make America great again” promises precisely to undo everything that has made our nation great already. Each victory we have enjoyed – and we have had many – is seen as a “defeat” by this anti-American who wants to tear down the City on a Hill and build a parking structure in its place. If we have a political revolution in 2016, Trump and his petty-fascist followers are promising to be the leaders of that revolution. It takes a certain naive optimism to presume that “political revolution” is going to go the way Sanders proposes. Even presuming Trump loses, his fascist army will still be fighting out there in the streets of the information superhighway, on Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat. They will vote locally while voting for the president, and keep pushing Congress ever more to a radical right extremism that undoes everything we have accomplished over the last half century.
This is not the time for a political revolution. This is not the time to radicalize heavily armed Americans already suspicious of their government, of new ideas, of people with different skin colors and accents and clothes and religions. This is a time to consolidate those gains we have made, and to prevent the Right from making further inroads to our rights and our prosperity. This is the time to build the City on a Hill by speaking to those values most Americans hold dear. The last half a century has seen progress, and the promise of a new America that is more inclusive and more prosperous than ever before; that builds and shares more wealth than we have ever seen. But that progress is at risk. And promises of political revolution threaten to undo that progress, to destroy the foundations of a more inclusive, more productive, more secure America that we have barely begun constructing.
In the 1930s, there was another moment when political revolution was advocated. Germany had a much larger and better organized socialist movement, and a century previously had led the world in creating what today we think of as modern liberalism. That very state did see a revolution in the 1930s – a revolution of exactly the type of people that Karl Marx feared would undo all of our leftist values, and exactly the type of people that Donald Trump is bringing together. With even stronger leftist assets and credentials than the US has today, Germany pushed over into a radical right-wing nightmare that makes today’s Republican party look democratic, inclusive, and reasonable in comparison. This happened in the home of modern liberalism, and the home of a strong socialist movement. Political revolution was argued by both left and right. And when revolution came, those voices who had first advocated it were not its leaders, but its victims.
The last few years of conservative retraction demonstrates that the United States does not possess the capabilities needed for moving a leftist, or even just liberal, political revolution past the trumpenproletariat and past our own conservative peasants. We have not one, but two candidates who are arguing for a political revolution. Unlike Trump, Bernie Sanders is a great, principled, and honest leader. But his promise to light the flame of political revolution is naive and dangerous. Before you light the flame, be sure you know who is going to be carrying the torch.
Headline image by Ben Sarle, via Sanders campaign on Facebook.