To Win a Revolution, We Need a New Mass Organization
It’s hard for leftists in the United States to find much to celebrate these days. After the excitement of Bernie Sanders’s victories in the early 2020 Democratic primaries, our hopes were dashed when the center consolidated around Joe Biden and handed him the nomination. The wave of inspiring uprisings against police brutality later that summer was followed by disappointment too, as demands for serious reforms to attack racial and economic injustice were co-opted or sidelined. The Left, as some have put it, finds itself in purgatory.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s administration has turned out to be what his most astute critics predicted: a presidency that, despite some early bright spots, has failed to meaningfully tackle economic inequality, the climate crisis, or much of anything else. Biden’s approval ratings are now at record lows as inflation batters the economy. (It’s unclear whether a last-minute compromise deal with West Virginia senator Joe Manchin on climate, health care, and taxes will salvage the administration’s popularity.) On top of that, the Supreme Court is rolling back abortion rights and threatening our democracy, and Biden and Democratic Party leaders are dragging their feet on any sort of response. The increasingly reactionary GOP now seems set for victory in the midterms.
There are some positive signs: Left-wing ideas are more mainstream than they have been in decades, in part thanks to Sanders’s presidential campaigns. Along with other insurgent politicians like “Squad” members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, Sanders has put policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and free public college on the agenda. Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has nearly one hundred thousand dues-paying members, four members in Congress, and dozens of elected officials at the state and local levels. The labor movement is stirring again, with this year’s successful Amazon warehouse unionization effort in Staten Island, the ongoing wave of Starbucks organizing, and the election of a strike-ready leadership to the 1.3-million-strong International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Still, the Left hasn’t been able to coordinate effective political interventions at the federal level, let alone exercise power. With leftists still a tiny minority in Congress, progressive priorities like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal are off the agenda, and even less ambitious reforms are consistently stymied by conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin. And despite growing their legislative presence, socialists and their allies have failed to expand beyond deep-blue districts.
Sanders’s presidential campaigns brought in tens of thousands of volunteers, millions of voters, and a huge number of small-dollar campaign contributions (many from working-class donors). But it wasn’t enough to win, and the underlying theory of the campaigns — that class-struggle rhetoric and a popular platform of wealth redistribution could turn out masses of working-class nonvoters to carry Sanders to the nomination — didn’t pan out. Despite the popularity of Sanders-style politics and mass discontent with the status quo, socialism remains largely the preserve of young, college-educated professionals in solidly Democratic districts — isolated from the broader working-class constituency it purports to represent.
In a phrase, Sanders’s “political revolution” simply never came.
There are many theories as to why Sanders didn’t win. Part of the explanation, though, must involve the lack of working-class organization (including unions) and left institutions. The defeat and disorganization of the Left and labor since the 1970s has deprived the working class of the struggles and organizations that undergird them — what Friedrich Engels called “schools of class war.” Having never felt the power of collective struggle, many voters were understandably skeptical that Sanders’s campaign would deliver. And with most Democratic voters taking their cues from the corporate media and party elites, Sanders simply didn’t have a strong enough media counterweight.
Today, the absence of mass working-class organization continues to haunt the US left. With the Right putting fundamental liberties like reproductive freedom on the chopping block and the Democrats asleep at the wheel, the time is ripe to build a mass organization that can make desperately needed political interventions. And we think that Sanders and the Squad need to take the lead in building such an organization.
Movements Need Organizations
The Left’s recent defeats — compounded by COVID-19, which has made in-person organizing much more difficult — have fostered demoralization and demobilization. But much of the post-2020 malaise can also be attributed to the inability of activists — let alone millions of ordinary people — to keep participating in a movement that has the power to change the world, especially at the national level, where the stakes are highest. While activists have supported impressive campaigns and righteous protests, millions of former Bernie supporters understandably feel helpless amid political and ecological crises.
Still, there are inspiring examples for the Left to build on. In Richmond, California, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) has beaten landlords and Chevron to win city council majorities on and off for over a decade. The Vermont Progressive Party continues to be a significant force in state politics, even holding the office of lieutenant governor from 2017 to 2021. In New York City and Chicago, DSA-backed elected officials have formed socialist caucuses.
These efforts are exciting because they elevate the political process above individual candidates and fleeting election campaigns, fuse legislative fights with permanent membership organizations, and create clear and oppositional political identities distinct from the Democratic Party. As labor activist and RPA leader Mike Parker wrote earlier this year, building broader political organization is the “main task when it comes to political action,” not a “side issue.” Organization is how we make Bernie’s “Not me, us” more than a slogan.
Without organization, it’s hard to build, let alone sustain, the type of mobilization needed for Bernie’s political revolution. Massive protests wane without clear demands, let alone a compelling strategy of how to win them. Thousands of progressives either don’t know how to start building campaigns or lack the resources to do so. Movements around important issues get co-opted by corporate Democrats’ reelection campaigns, grant-seeking nonprofits, and prominent social media personalities who aren’t democratically accountable to any base. Ongoing organization is also essential to train onetime protesters into skilled, politically sophisticated, and lifelong movement cadre.
In electoral politics, progressive candidates face enormous pressure to avoid criticizing establishment Democrats. Once elected, lone progressives have few resources to push against the business-friendly common sense at every level of government: corporate candidates can rely on well-funded lobbyists to help write legislation, educate the public, and even mobilize supporters; anti-corporate candidates must do this all on their own. Without a broader organization at their back, it’s no wonder that the progressive politicians we support are not able to be constantly fighting on all fronts at once.
Only mass organization can bring together the resources and the people of the Sanders movement on a permanent basis. The idea of such a party-like organization has been popular on the Left since the end of Sanders’s 2016 campaign, popularized in a 2016 Jacobin article by Seth Ackerman and expanded on recently by many others.
If the Left had a mass party–like organization in 2020, the end of Sanders’s second presidential race wouldn’t have meant losing the feeling that, together, we could change the world. While supporters of Sanders and the Squad can donate to individual election campaigns when asked, there is no way to permanently join and help build the movement these elected officials appear to lead. Many of us called for Sanders to convert his 2020 campaign infrastructure into a permanent organization after the campaign, to no avail.
Such a party-like organization could have helped progressives in Congress and their many supporters win more of the progressive items in negotiations over Build Back Better since 2021. As Ben Beckett argued in Jacobin last fall, Sanders and the Squad could have built a powerful movement to pressure Manchin and Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema by mobilizing with activists, including DSA members, battle-hardened teacher unionists — who led historic mass strikes in West Virginia and Arizona in 2018 — and other progressives. Such a movement might also have pushed the Biden administration to use its bully pulpit or the power of executive action to enact sweeping change (like canceling student debt). The movement to defend abortion rights desperately needs this kind of mobilization today.
In a similar vein, Neal Meyer writes that “mass mobilizations require mass organization. We have to put the days of lone-wolf politicians acting on their own . . . behind us.” A Sanders-led party-like organization with permanent local chapters across the country could have coordinated this movement with progressive electoral challenges in West Virginia and Arizona and pressure campaigns against Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi in California and Chuck Schumer in New York. A mass organization could in turn bolster Sanders and the Squad to fight for a better deal in Congress, as well as support local and state-level candidates nationwide — including in purple or red districts where the Left does not yet have a foothold.
Ultimately, we need something like the organization described here to help convince millions of working people who are disconnected from politics that a better world is possible through collective action, and to sustain mass activity once it’s in motion. That’s how we can build the base that will elect Sanders-style progressives and democratic socialists by the hundreds across the country and grow a movement that can exert bottom-up pressure through mass disruption.
Build Back Bernie
It is premature to write a precise blueprint for what this party-like organization should look like. But there are a few principles that should guide us.
First, socialists and progressives should call on Bernie and the Squad to participate in building and leading this new organization. For better or worse, only these national political figures have the resources and legitimacy to bring together millions of supporters and many disparate threads of progressive activism into a single organization. Their leadership would make the project much more likely to succeed, and sooner.
Second, such an organization should be democratic and membership-based. Local and national leaders should be elected by the members, and members should be able to influence the policy platforms of elected officials like Sanders through conventions and internal debates. As Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle write in a different context, democracy is power: only democratic organizations can give their members a sense of ownership over strategies and campaigns, grow the sophistication and size of their activist base, refine their approach based on real-world experience, and deal with competing ideas without alienating the minority of activists who don’t get their way.
Third, the group should support progressive election campaigns, but also year-round organizing outside the halls of official politics. The history of progressive movements shows that mass disruption, outside of the normal political process, is critical to securing legislative wins. No anti-corporate political project will be successful if the Left isn’t also helping build fighting unions and social movements.
Fourth, a progressive party-like organization should be working-class-funded, primarily through membership dues. That means rejecting all corporate and billionaire donations, large unreported donations from anonymous sources, and donations from PACs, foundations, or other groups that launder capitalist cash. Campaign-finance statutes complicate efforts to coordinate election spending, but David Duhalde and Seth Ackerman have both explained how such a nonparty political organization could navigate the law.
Finally, this organization should be effectively nonpartisan, meaning it will support candidates running as Democrats and as independents, depending on what makes sense in a given local context. Sanders himself has run as an independent for Congress, but caucuses with the Democrats, and made his biggest impact by running in the Democratic presidential primaries. This flexibility will be needed both to build an independent political brand that resonates with voters sick of both corporate parties and to keep together leftists and progressives who might currently disagree about the long-term future of the Democratic Party. In the near term, though, the organization can appeal to voters who are still loyal to the Democrats or who are worried about the “spoiler effect” in districts where that is a concern.
Along with mobilizing to defend abortion and other rights, activists and groups that believe in this organizational vision should plan local and national convenings to discuss how to make it a reality. We’re members of DSA and believe DSA has an important role to play in backing this effort. But we also believe that a Sanders-led party-like organization must have a broader ideological base than DSA, since today’s fights are for near-term reforms, not for overthrowing capitalism. As with our election campaigns, unions, and protests, our mass political organizations should be open to the millions of people who want to defend democracy and support Sanders’s agenda but aren’t ready to join an explicitly anti-capitalist organization.
Other membership organizations and nonprofits like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, local or state-level political formations like the RPA and the Vermont Progressive Party, grassroots groups fighting for economic and social justice, and progressive unions like National Nurses United, which hosted the People’s Summit after Sanders’s first run in 2016, should also sign on to this project.
A New Political Moment
Sanders has attempted to start a mass membership organization before: Our Revolution, which sprung up in the wake of his 2016 presidential run. For all its accomplishments, though, Our Revolution isn’t suited to play the role of a mass party–like organization right now.
First, though at least some chapters had democratic mechanisms, members were not empowered to democratically determine the national organization’s strategy. Second, Sanders himself was not involved in the organization, which likely hindered the group’s appeal and political effectiveness. Third, as Duhalde noted in 2020, most of Our Revolution’s staff left the organization to work for Sanders’s 2020 campaign, and some of its key early leaders are no longer involved.
That points to another problem with Our Revolution: it was formed at a particular moment (post-2016), with many activists no doubt expecting another Sanders presidential run, and with a particular strategy of attempting to reform the Democratic Party from within. But that political moment is over: Sanders lost the 2020 primary, progressives have largely found themselves marginalized by the Democratic establishment, and we need everyone who was activated by the Bernie campaign and more — including Sanders himself and the Squad — to come together to devise a new strategy. We should reconsider Our Revolution’s strategy of running for internal Democratic Party positions, for instance, and think about establishing a political identity more independent of the Democrats.
The new left has much to be proud of since 2016, but the organizations and tactics that got us this far aren’t enough going forward. If we want to fight for democracy and justice, and build the power to make more ambitious changes in the future, we need to get serious about our strategy. Isolated protests, strikes, and election campaigns have brought many of us into politics. But we need these to add up to more than the sum of their parts so we can wage the struggle that establishment Democrats can’t or won’t.
We know the creation of the kind of group we’re calling for is a long shot. But we’ve seen the ability of Sanders and the Squad to inspire millions, and we believe they have the power to start building the effective, broad left organization that this moment demands.
Jeremy Gong is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in California’s East Bay.
Nick French is an assistant editor at Jacobin.
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