Nothing was as inspiring to me about Bernie Sanders’s 2020 run as the slogan he used to jump-start the campaign last fall. “Are you willing to fight for that person you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” he asked in his Queens rally speech in October. He was reviving the gist of an old slogan of the labor movement that badly needs remembering in the time of Trump and the coronavirus: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
Bernie made it clear that the “us” in “Not me, Us” is all of us. Wider layers of the Left responded, gravitating to his campaign and identifying with it even more than in 2016. The Sanders 2020 campaign became a point of connection for people and organizations representing the whole range of struggles and causes that emerged in the Trump era and before it. I’m one of those people — the spirit of solidarity that the campaign, whatever its weaknesses, came to represent is the main reason I went from skeptic to supporter.
Since we have to plan a strategy for socialists in which Bernie Sanders won’t be the Democratic nominee, then I hope what we come up with builds on the spirit of that slogan. Unfortunately, I think a recent Jacobin piece by Dustin Guastella proposes a step in the other direction.
“We need to adjust our message and rhetoric,” he wrote the day after the March 10 primaries, when the full scale of the reversal of fortunes for Sanders became clear. “We need to shed the more fringe parts of our platform, and we need to focus heavily, almost singularly, on the bread and butter.”
Guastella doesn’t explain exactly which parts of Sanders’s platform are “fringe,” but he does contrast bread-and-butter issues with “‘activist demands’ and identity posturing” (in association with Elizabeth Warren’s campaign), which he calls “harmful” to the working-class movement. This appears to be a call to “shed” struggles against oppression and injustice as a distraction at best from the primarily economic issues that can unite the whole working class.
The first problem with this argument is that “activist demands” against oppression are very much bread-and-butter issues to the people affected — in a world where women still make about 80 cents to a man’s dollar, where African-American household wealth is a tiny fraction of that of white households, and where the undocumented are prey to super-exploitation because of anti-immigrant policies.
But just as importantly, a socialist movement has to be prepared to, as Sanders said, “fight for that person you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself.” There is no way to achieve a united working-class movement unless the oppressions faced by sections of that class are challenged in the world and overcome within our movement. Divided, workers have fallen, again and again throughout history. So socialists have to fight those divisions explicitly.
Guastella is retreating from Bernie’s own leadership on this question. I, for one, didn’t recognize Sanders’s methodical preparatory efforts in reaching out to leaders and thinkers on the broad left, beyond the mainly economic questions that were the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign — in particular, representatives of the antiracist struggle.
When the media noticed this at all, their ever-cynical instinct was to write it off as “covering a flank,” since Sanders had come under fire in 2016 from some in the Black Lives Matter movement for not saying enough about racism. But the Left should reject this view — and the radical variation of it that argues that an unwilling Sanders was grudgingly forced to go along with such activist demands purely for electoral purposes.
There is some truth to this. Grassroots movements have been critical throughout this new era, including in shaping the message Sanders projected throughout his campaign. But Sanders deserves some credit, too. By making these questions central to his campaign and tying them together with his working-class program, he has enriched his politics — and ours.
Going forward, this offers another opportunity for reviving the politics of solidarity that the Left needs so badly, and it will only happen if Sanders and all of us embrace more struggles and causes — not shed them.
What does this mean for forming a socialist strategy after Bernie’s defeat? Guastella says we have to “[reject] the fantasy that now is the time we all throw ourselves into third-party work or militant protest activity.”
But it’s possible to believe that there probably won’t be a basis now for a left-wing “dirty break” from the Democrats to form an independent working-class party, but also believe that we can and should talk about the necessity of that break and how to get there. At the very least, socialists have to talk about the reasons for Sanders’s rapid change of fortunes from a situation less than two months ago when Guastella could cowrite an article headlined, “After the Nevada Blowout, It’s Bernie’s Party Now.”
The more problematic point, though, is rejecting “militant protest activity.” Especially in the face of the COVID-19 crisis and the criminal negligence of corporate America and the US government (including its leading Democrats), there’s an urgent need for strategic thinking and planning about what types of actions we can take in the coming months, whatever happens with the elections.
Already, the sparks of struggles have caught across the boundaries of political issues. Think of the threatened teacher sickout that closed New York City schools, the pressure to release prisoners, the campaigns for a rent freeze and eviction moratoriums, and the surge of strikes and labor protests, such as the predominantly black and brown workforce in Amazon warehouses resisting a company that treats them as disposable. Each of these represents an interwoven response to the health care disaster wrought by capitalism.
After 2016, the Democratic Socialists of America surged in membership during the upheaval against Trump’s election. To its great credit, it became one of the loudest voices calling to “abolish ICE.”
And I’m pretty sure the first Jacobin article I read by Guastella was one in 2017 proposing to step up the Medicare for All campaign with a national march on Washington, DC. I agreed wholeheartedly; I can remember quoting his reasoning: “You can’t do mass politics without mass demonstrations.” That’s still true.
An Injury to One Is an Injury to All
One of the main lessons of the primaries after South Carolina is the distance still to go to turn working-class support for socialist ideas into concrete actions that build power — even on the electoral level. A majority of African-American voters in South Carolina and many states after told exit pollsters they want Medicare for All and a “complete overhaul” of the US economic system — yet they voted for Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders.
In a New York Times op-ed article, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor makes the case that this group with perhaps “the most to gain by the numerous programs proposed by Mr. Sanders [has] also been the most disappointed by politics.” It won’t be easy to reverse that demoralization — it’s the product of decades of dashed hopes — but socialists can make a start by showing that the movement Bernie’s campaigns inspired is committed to all the struggles that take place between elections.
The Sanders campaign — along with the broader radicalization of the past decade — has shown that socialist ideas can win over wider layers of workers. But we also have to win people away from antisocialist ideas. That means challenging — practically, through struggle — racism, sexism, anti-LGBT bigotry, nationalism, and any other oppression that could divide the working class.
That’s what it means to truly win people to socialism — to convince them to fight not only for themselves but for people they don’t know, because an injury to any one of us is an injury to us all.