Sanders, Socialism and Socialist Organization

A retrospective assessment of the politics of the former ISO on elections and some thoughts on socialist organization

Alan Maass
37 min readJan 31, 2020
Bernie Sanders stands with socialist City Council members at a rally at Chicago Teachers Union headquarters.

This article began several months ago as a short Facebook post about why I joined DSA — and it grew and grew and grew some more (anyone who endured a lecture from me about sticking to word counts in a Socialist Worker article is welcome to mock me!). I mostly wanted to contribute to an ongoing discussion among former members of the International Socialist Organization, but I’m publishing it on so anyone interested can have access to it. As long as this article is, there’s much more to be said about the subjects it takes up — and even more about the other important debates alive in the ISO before it dissolved. I look forward to that discussion continuing.

At the time it dissolved last year, the International Socialist Organization was trying to come to terms with the rise of the new socialist movement and adapt our practice in relating to it. The Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders and left-wing Democrats, and the relationship of all of the above to the Democratic Socialists of America were central points of discussion at the ISO’s February 2019 convention and before. Our dissolution (which was not because of that debate) makes any guesses at where the ISO would have ended up on these questions a matter of speculation, but they are obviously still relevant.

This article puts forward some propositions and thoughts about these questions to former ISO members (and others, but it is written specifically with former ISO members and collaborators in mind and somewhat in the language we share in common). Though the previous internal debate is moot, I’ve gone back to those discussions to consider how they stack up on their own terms, one year later. I’m not proposing a “perspective” for former ISO members. I want to explain the conclusions I’ve drawn for myself in case that’s useful as comrades think through their own role as socialists.

To start with, I think the ISO position that revolutionary socialists can’t support candidates and campaigns within the Democratic Party under any circumstances has been proven wrong and should be abandoned.

Over the past several years, the Sanders presidential campaigns; the experience of socialists in Congress, city councils, and elsewhere; and their collective impact on a new generation of radicals and socialists have shown one central assumption of the ISO’s position — that the Democratic Party would absorb and disarm any left-wing challenge within the party and trap the sympathizers, pulling them away from any commitment to independent left-wing politics — to be incorrect over a sustained period of time (not, obviously, forever). Other parts of the ISO’s analysis of the Democratic Party remain valid (and are shared in large part by many in the new socialist movement, in my experience). But I think the “never ever” character of our attitude is obsolete in the current period.

Applied to just the Bernie Sanders campaign and the upcoming Democratic primaries, this statement may not be so controversial for many former ISO members (it’s old hat, of course, for those who were already moving toward this position in the last years of the organization, not to mention the bulk of the socialist movement beyond the ISO). My sense is that many former ISO members have drawn this conclusion, at least regarding Sanders’s campaign this year. Certainly the exciting momentum of the campaign today makes that judgment easier. But I want to focus as well on some implications that flow from this conclusion and extend beyond the upcoming primaries, when matters may not seem so clear cut. In sum:

1) The largest arena for the current phase in an ongoing left radicalization is taking place around socialists running in the Democratic Party. The former ISO members who proposed that revolutionary socialists could and should support the Sanders campaign on this basis were also proven right on a further point: that the radicalization would not only draw people to the left generally but specifically toward support for class independence and the formation of a future left-wing party. That process is continuing, but it hasn’t — and shouldn’t be expected to have — yet reached the stage when a strategy and timetable for a break from the Democrats is well formed.

2) Elections can’t be dismissed as the “lowest form of struggle,” a phrase I know I used in the ISO over the years. This “primitive” form of struggle has been the primary vehicle for a mass revival of socialism for the first time in several generations.

3) Far from distracting from grassroots struggle and movement-building, I think electoral campaigns and the experience of socialists in office over the past several years have brought greater attention and some measure of organization to struggles beyond the ballot box — and also cohered a stronger and more confident left, in ways that the former ISO’s position didn’t account for.

4) In light of this, the ISO’s old formulations about the dangers of “electoralism” seem one-sided (not to say entirely wrong) and in need of serious rehab. I find myself asking the same question we heard many times: Why shouldn’t we do both — including supporting the campaigns of socialists inside the Democratic Party? By every account I’ve heard or witnessed, the Sanders campaign is bringing the left into contact with larger and larger numbers of people who it wouldn’t have met given the continuing low level of class and social struggle — and this is true because the campaign is within the Democratic Party. Nor does there seem to be any barrier in bringing people energized and inspired by Sanders and the left Democrats into other arenas of struggle — provided socialists are open to and enthusiastic about those possibilities and are actively trying to realize them.

Another conclusion I’ve drawn is that the main place today for trying to engage with the broader left radicalization is within the DSA, or at least in close relationship with it. DSA is an uneven organization (as literally everyone in DSA acknowledges), so being an active member isn’t easy everywhere. And there are important opportunities beyond DSA to engage as a socialist, whether in the labor or other movements or around different left initiatives — I don’t mean to minimize those efforts in any way.

But I think that DSA is — and will be for some time — the main organized terrain where socialist politics and practice will be introduced to a new generation, tested and worked out, and further developed. I joined DSA to try to contribute to that process. I joined knowing that I wouldn’t agree on important points with many in the organization — but also wanting to shed any habits and ingrained reactions that would hinder from engaging with the actual radicalization taking place, with all its weaknesses but also its indisputable strengths.

Given how “debates” about these questions went in the last years of the ISO, I’ll clearly state what I’m not saying. I’m not (good grief) giving up on revolution and embracing socialism from above. I’m not saying that the Democratic Party has ceased to be capitalist. I’m not saying the Democrats can be realigned or reformed, nor that the working class doesn’t need a mass labor or socialist party independent of the Democrats. I’m not saying that any old Democrat will do. I’m not saying that Bernie Sanders or AOC have abandoned their hopes of reforming the Democrats. I’m not saying that a majority of DSA members are certain that a different project is necessary. I’m not saying that some formulations about Sanders and about socialism within DSA shouldn’t be challenged. Yes, there does need to be more discussion now about how the left-wing party that most DSA members say they aspire to be a part of will be formed. No, the debates about Kautsky aren’t irrelevant.

I am saying that I think the ISO was proven wrong on some questions that were central to our politics and practice, and that we can be forthright in saying so and thinking about how to revise both in order to be engaged with the (now-not-so) new socialist movement and contribute toward a stronger, larger revolutionary alternative in the future. I think we want to see the Sanders challenge go as far as it possibly can — including the previously inconceivable and now merely unlikely outcome of a democratic socialist being elected president. But each step that we take in that journey, socialists can be preparing for the next struggles, including the biggest of all — to achieve a social revolution, not just a political one.

For the next year at least — possibly one or two or three or more, but maybe less — a left-wing radicalization will continue to take the form of a surge of democratic socialist politics, with a particular focus on elections within the bounds of the Democratic Party, even as those bounds are strained. The experiences of the new socialist movement during the past several years and for whatever time is left in this phase will shape all of us on the left for years to come. My conclusion is that socialists need to try to take part in those experiences everywhere they can, to whatever extent they can.

In an article for a discussion bulletin circulating mainly among former ISO members, Peter L wrote: “Every former ISO comrade has spent the past six months re-evaluating our own political training, strategies and principles. In many ways the mental maps that we were using no longer matched the terrain we were trying to traverse.” Hopefully, he won’t mind me extending the metaphor: The points of the compass haven’t reversed, and we can still see the mountains in the distance that we have to cross. But the roads and paths to get closer aren’t going where our old map told us they would. We need to explore the terrain around us, and do so without so many preconceptions — without trying to sketch out a new map based on wrong information carried over from the old map. We can consider doubling back and meeting up with people who are working from a different map — one that got some things right that ours got wrong in the immediate past — and see if we can help work on a better one. And most important of all: the journey itself will be the best test of any map.

The ISO Debate on the Democrats and After

The position of never supporting a Democratic campaign or candidate was historically presented by ISO leaders and the group’s publications as a matter of principle, so when the debate began in earnest in spring 2018 after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory, those who were starting to dissent proposed that the question was a matter of strategy — that left-wing candidates could use a Democratic ballot line to further a process of building up socialism and the left, with the goal (among others) of breaking from the Democrats. I think they were proven right in their conclusions. And I was proven wrong — I wrote or cowrote a couple contributions that tried to put the best face on the “orthodoxy,” but they don’t hold water when I read them today. Comrades who challenged the ISO position on this and other questions got a lot of grief and downright abuse for it, and I’m very glad they persevered.

Building on their arguments, this is how I would put things today: The ISO’s position on the Democrats was derived from an actual Marxist principle, inherited from the Communist Manifesto — that the working class must achieve political independence from the capitalist class — combined with an analysis of the Democratic Party as an institution of capitalist class rule and a historical judgment that the left and the working-class movement has been repeatedly subjugated to the Democrats and pulled to the right, hindering the development of any left-wing alternative.

Nothing has changed about the first two elements — in fact, the Sanders campaign is more likely to confirm both for people drawn to the socialist left. It’s the third leg of the argument that has changed: Sanders’s 2016 campaign, then the victories of the socialist candidates for Congress and elsewhere, and now Sanders 2020 have galvanized a new and still-growing left that has become more radical and opposed to the status quo, including the Democratic Party’s role in maintaining it, over a sustained period of time.

At the time, I questioned whether the 2016 Sanders campaign and subsequently the 2018 AOC primary victory would be more than temporary challenges that would subside into a “loyal opposition” to the party leadership and apparatus, benefiting the Democrats more than the left over time. Sanders endorsed Clinton and went out on the campaign trail to support the ticket. This in itself doesn’t represent abject capitulation to the Democratic Party leadership (as I think some comrades today, anticipating Sanders’s defeat in the primaries and, if that happens, his all-but-certain endorsement of the eventual nominee, seem to view it). But when combined with other developments — for example, the debates within the Our Revolution organization that seemed to point to Sanders trying to keep the group from becoming too oppositional — I, for one, didn’t expect that Sanders 2020 would be more than a pale and probably short-lived reflection of 2016.

As for AOC and later Rashida Tlaib, after the immediate excitement of their primary victories, it seemed possible that they would follow the same path of previous left Democrats — especially once AOC joined Sanders in stumping for Democrats across the spectrum, including moderates with views opposed to their own. Based on past history, I thought it was entirely possible that AOC would take office in January 2019 and become indistinguishable from various progressive Democrats already in Congress.

That didn’t happen. On the contrary, after the 2018 election, AOC, Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar stood for a different agenda — and they have continued, at significant cost, to put a priority on agitating for it publicly, rather than trying to get along under the status quo. They stayed in the headlines — along with Sanders and eventually a number of local officeholders, most of them members or endorsees of DSA — not for accommodating Pelosi and the Democratic Party (including, at the local level especially, figures from the party’s liberal wing) but for very publicly opposing them.

This isn’t to say that these figures haven’t cast disappointing votes or taken equivocal positions on important questions. There have been letdowns at each stage of the last few years, including now, when the momentum of the Sanders campaign is carrying it further and further to the left — for example, Sanders celebrating the Joe Rogan endorsement and featuring it in a campaign ad. Socialists should criticize these disappointments — and above all resist the inclination to justify them or explain them away. This can’t be said often enough: It’s critical for the new socialist movement to prove itself on every issue related to oppression by championing the demands of the oppressed.

But if we’re right to be critical (and to convince others why they should be critical to), we also have to acknowledge that the disappointments are fewer than history led us to anticipate. Far more than any political figures in generations, Sanders, AOC, and the others have proven that they will respond to pressure from below — whether in the form of generalized sentiment among the Democrats’ liberal base or specific pressure from activists on critical questions such as immigrant rights, mass incarceration, and internationalism.

For the first half of 2019, I was still skeptical that Sanders’s second run for the Democratic presidential nomination would have the same impact as his first. I expected that he would have a tough time differentiating himself and holding onto support when he wasn’t running head to head against one of the most despised neoliberal hacks in the Democratic Party. But this proved to be wrong as well — and not only because of the party establishment’s failure to come up with any more appealing alternatives than Biden and Buttigieg among the allegedly “electable” candidates and Warren among the progressives.

More importantly, my expectation was an underestimation of the radicalization taking place through the vehicle of the Sanders campaign. Sanders’s supporters — not only the core of people drawn to work on his campaign but the wider layer of those committed to voting for him — were politically clearer than I recognized: about the necessity of fighting for the alternative agenda Sanders represents; about the inadequacy of other Democrats who try to co-opt elements of that agenda; and about how their vision of the future is incompatible with the interests, practices, and structure of the Democratic Party. (Many still hope the Democratic Party can be transformed, but thinking that now doesn’t mean they won’t come to more radical conclusions later, as a significant number of people in the new socialist movement already have.)

The other factor in the Sanders campaign’s success in galvanizing a left-wing challenge to this point in the 2020 primaries is Sanders’s own determination to run a more left-wing campaign and further develop the grassroots organizing model used in 2016. It’s hard to think of any issue about which the ISO criticized Sanders where he hasn’t moved to the left, at least somewhat and sometimes vastly. Immigrant rights is one of the latest examples, as Lupita Romero pointed out at PuntoRojo. Maybe China and trade is a contrary example — and I’m happy for comrades to point out others, because my point isn’t to paint Sanders with a bright-red brush. But I do think the list is outweighed by important steps forward.

One consequence of this is that the Sanders 2020 campaign is more representative of the whole left than 2016. Not only has Sanders responded on issues where many radicals were able to point out his shortcomings, but he seems to be more conscious of representing individuals and organizations beyond the economics-centered agenda of the 2016 campaign, which he defined without reference to or input from other left forces.

The result has been an increasingly united gravitation of broader left forces around Sanders — something that I didn’t expect given the appeal of Elizabeth Warren’s more liberal agenda. The openness of figures like Naomi Klein, Phillip Agnew, or Barbara Ransby, to take several quite different people as examples, to be open partisans in support of Sanders is indicative of this, as are the endorsements of the Sunrise Movement, Dream Defenders, and United Teachers Los Angeles.

I do think Sanders supporters should be clearer in recognizing how these and other forces shaped Sanders’s or AOC’s agenda and message today. This is one of the less-noted continuities with earlier phases of the left-wing radicalization since the Great Recession: Sanders deserves credit for embracing more left-wing politics and forces in ways he didn’t in 2016, but the work of various movements and grassroots forces made it possible for him to represent that wider spectrum of left politics.

Whatever the balance on this score, this is still one of the most striking developments that the former ISO’s position doesn’t account for. The Sanders campaign is building not just support for a particular candidate but the whole left in ways that the ISO always hoped to contribute toward. Individuals and organizations that need to be in contact, coordination, discussion/debate, and active solidarity with each other are doing all this through the vehicle of the Sanders campaign. That will be hugely important long after the campaign is lost or won.

This is why I find it impossible to maintain a position of abstention toward the Sanders campaign, however sympathetically. The more it succeeds, the better off the left will be — including when it comes time to break ranks with those who remain wedded to reforming the Democratic Party. That doesn’t mean being uncritical or putting aside other struggles and movements to only campaign for Sanders. But I’ve definitely concluded that one thing I will do in the coming months is support Sanders and the other socialists who have run as Democrats.

What Does Support Mean?

It might be worth dusting off an old formulation about voting “without illusions” that I remember being used by the International Socialist tendency (specifically in Britain to call for a vote for Labour “without illusions”). We can support Sanders and build the left-wing radicalization taking shape through his campaign without illusions about his chances of winning; without illusions that Sanders will transform the Democratic Party; especially without illusions that a Sanders presidency — if it were to come about — could accomplish even a modest measure of significant social change without a massive rise in social and class struggle.

Illusion Number One: Bernie’s Got It in the Bag — Sanders’s 2020 campaign has been an extraordinary success. But it will only get harder from here. As successful as the 2016 campaign was, there was never really a time when it wasn’t fairly certain that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee. If the political and media establishment’s attacks on Sanders were vicious then, they will get far worse if he emerges from the first primaries as the frontrunner. And they will become frenzied if his grassroots operation in Super Tuesday states (which include California this year) works to plan. We haven’t yet witnessed the full capacity of the Democratic Party to subvert a left-wing campaign. And that’s not to consider the fanaticism of a reactionary Trump general election campaign — no doubt supported by the vast majority of the ruling class without any of 2016’s hesitations — should Sanders win the nomination.

Still, I think it’s important to not have a jaundiced view when enthusiastic Sanders supporters talk about 2020 being the year Bernie is elected president. First of all, a Sanders victory is a much more serious possibility today than it ever was before. Yes, it’s too early to stock champagne, much less pop the corks, and yes, we should say so. But in a political period that has been volatile, unpredictable, and with a lot of defeats but also some inspiring victories for our side, it’s not a political weakness to have a little more hope than before.

The Democratic Party as an institution of capitalist rule is not powerless against Sanders, but we should also bear in mind what Aaron A described in an article as “an extreme crisis of legitimacy [for official politics and political representation] and in some cases the collapse of the historic parties of governance, i.e. center-left and center-right, in most of the parliamentary democracies of advanced capitalism.” The radicalization that is driving support for Sanders is still uneven and in its formative stages, but it is more thorough than we give it credit for if we assume the Democratic Party will definitely succeed in squashing the Sanders threat.

Still, by not emphasizing the more likely outcome that Sanders will be defeated, are his left-wing supporters setting themselves up to be paralyzed by demoralization? I think that’s a one-sided view. Obviously, every setback for the Sanders campaign is going to be a disappointment to anyone who has invested hope in it. But in 2016 and so far in 2020, those setbacks also produce more anger: at the slanderous attacks on Sanders and socialists, including from prominent progressives; at the undemocratic nature of the Democratic Party; at the political status quo that the Democratic Party props up.

Moreover, it is anger with a purpose and direction. The ISO’s case that defeated left campaigns within the Democratic Party would result in disorientation and dispersal depended on historical examples from the life of the organization. In each case from the late 1970s on, the candidates and campaigns represented a retreat, ideologically and practically, from what was generally accepted on the left before. More importantly, few of these initiatives gave rise to any organization beyond the immediate needs of the campaign — and those that did emerge were politically compromised, limited in scope to elections, and/or without an organic life that could extend beyond the priorities set by their leaders.

The rise of Sanders, AOC, and other socialists and left-wingers running as Democrats today opens up different possibilities. The politics of these figures aren’t without weaknesses, far from it, but they represent an advance for the left — both qualitatively from the diffuse anticapitalist sentiment that came before and quantitatively in terms of mass support. Most important of all, the election successes of Sanders, AOC, and the others have been matched on the metric of organization. DSA’s growth is obviously the prime example, but in less visible ways, the connecting sinews of a broad left have strengthened as a consequence of collective identification with left-wing election campaigns. Rather than being dispersed after elections, the radicalization has been concentrated and sustained in important ways.

Sanders’s 2016 campaign didn’t lead to a break from the Democratic Party, but neither did it lead to inactivity and long-term demoralization. His supporters didn’t move to the right after the disappointment of losing the nomination. On the contrary, the leftward shift through the vehicle of Democratic Party campaigns was reinvigorated by local and national successes in 2018 and after, which in turn led to the further growth of the new socialist movement and laid the basis for a stronger Sanders campaign the second time around.

If Sanders doesn’t win the presidential nomination, the majority of his supporters (whatever the polls say now) will likely vote for whatever candidate does win, even Biden or Buttigieg, as a vote against Trump. But that alone doesn’t signify retreat and subjugation. If DSA stands by its convention decision to not formally endorse any Democratic candidate other than Sanders, that would be a powerful statement in the face of enormous pressure, even if many DSA members — like virtually everyone who hates Trump — will hold their nose and vote for a Democrat. Most important of all, DSA has proven to have a life beyond elections, which can become the home for still larger numbers of people who in the past were left with few options other than waiting for the next campaign.

Plus, there is another dynamic, not dealt with in this article: the aggressions of the right. Those drawn to the left in reaction to the atrocities of the right wing — on whatever issue, from the assault on women’s rights, to the xenophobic frenzy of nationalism and anti-immigrant hate, to climate change denialism in all its forms — are motivated by the scale of the assault to not stop at the lesser evil of a kinder, gentler neoliberalism and to embrace radical change and a systemic alternative, best represented by socialism.

I don’t think a Sanders defeat, if it happens, will lead to mass demoralization — nor to an imminent break by large numbers to form a left-wing party independent of the Democrats. Since it is likely that the radicalization around socialism will continue in its current form, I want to stand with it, rather than sympathizing but standing outside.

Illusion Number Two: The Left Is Taking Over the Democratic Party: When AOC set off (yet more) shock waves by stating an obvious fact — that in most countries, she wouldn’t be in the same party as Joe Biden — most people in and around DSA celebrated the statement and applied it to themselves. This is another sign of a general instinct for political independence. In my experience, if you ask a DSA member where they hope the group is in five years, a majority will say: in a new party, running only socialist candidates for office. That response is mostly an aspiration, not an articulated strategy. But it’s why the new DSA — as almost everyone would acknowledge — has changed fundamentally from its past.

But it’s not a complete picture of the radicalization around Sanders to leave it at this sentiment, even as it extends beyond DSA. A large number of people, particularly those who tend to identify themselves as activists rather than socialists, believe that the Sanders campaign can remake the Democratic Party. Ryan Grim’s extended analysis of the Sanders campaign at the Intercept shows how the Sanders campaign has flipped Democratic Party organizing orthodoxies upside down. And Sanders himself sidelined some of his allies best placed to be a bridge to the party establishment, which has only sharpened the antagonism. Nevertheless, it’s telling that many of the lead organizers responsible for Sanders’s radically different campaign have written books putting forward their ideas as the way to revitalize the Democratic Party.

The point here is that the Sanders campaign isn’t one thing or the other — a vehicle for realignment or an incipient future break in the making. Both poles exist. To me, the real question to answer is how the dynamics of the moment affect those nearer the future-break pole; those in between; and even some of those who today view themselves as remaking the Democratic Party but who could shift in the right circumstances.

The ISO always talked about the Democratic Party’s “gravitational pull,” even on people deeply dissatisfied with it, who end up adapting their practice and politics to liberalism and “working inside the system.” There’s ample evidence of that dynamic in the past. But I think a different one is operating today with respect to the new socialist movement, as a result of several factors.

First, flowing from the last point, radicalizing Sanders supporters can identify ideologically with socialism as a distinct alternative to the Democrats and concretely with a more substantial left that has an explicitly socialist organization, DSA, at its core. This constitutes a framework for individuals to attach themselves to, which can sustain them between elections.

Second, the critique of the status quo generally and the Democratic Party specifically, whether from Sanders, or AOC and Tlaib, or many local socialist candidates and officeholders, is more substantial than past progressive challenges. Even Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition, to name the most popular such effort of the recent past, didn’t represent an agenda as clearly counterposed to the interests of the Democratic establishment. As a result, those drawn to Sanders, AOC, and the others see themselves more fundamentally at odds with the “corporate” or “neoliberal” Democrats or whatever term people use to identify the other side. Whatever the language, it has become a “which side are you on” conflict, and the antagonism is growing, not receding.

One argument I made about Sanders and then AOC in Socialist Worker editorials was that the very successes of left-wing candidates makes it harder to resist the pressures that draw them and their supporters further into the Democratic Party fold. But it seems to me that exactly the opposite has been happening today. Not only the successes of the socialists but the setbacks and challenges facing them have only increased the polarization — think of the incensed reactions, including among people honestly torn about supporting Sanders, to the smug elitism of Hillary Clinton claiming that no one likes Bernie, or the Warren campaign’s flailing suggestions of sexism (not that this justifies some would-be Sanders supporters lurching toward and into sexism to lash back).

The main dynamic at the moment isn’t gravitational but centrifugal — events are pulling the new socialist movement further away from anything resembling co-optation by the Democratic Party.

To say this doesn’t mean the conflict will come to a head and a left-wing break from the Democrats is in the cards now. (Nor, to speak to the likely misgivings of former ISO members, does supporting socialists running in the Democratic Party now mean harming the chances of such a break developing, any more than it has to this point.) For starters, anyone who thinks that socialists and the left have been successful in using Democratic campaigns to build their forces and advance their goals, including eventual independence, will think this strategy still has room to run.

Consider the scenarios. If Sanders does win the presidential nomination, then the Democratic Party will not be suddenly transformed — the sabotage campaign of the elites who treat the Democrats as their private preserve will make that even clearer. But only the most foolish sectarian would argue that Sanders couldn’t be supported — against a Pinochet-wannabe like Trump, no less — because he would be the nominee of a capitalist party in this scenario.

In the more likely event that Sanders is defeated or prevented from winning, the energy of the new socialist movement will definitely be directed toward movements and struggles beyond the ballot box — but as far as elections go, it seems more likely to flow into other campaigns using the Democratic ballot line to elect one, two, three many AOCs at the national, state, and local levels. Rather than defuse the polarization, these campaigns are more likely to inflame the conflict, all the more so if a Biden/Buttigieg/Klobuchar/Bloomberg-led party tries to settle scores with the renegades.

The current centrifugal dynamic won’t continue forever, but the longer it does, the more people will be drawn to socialism and the left, the more discontent with the Democratic Party as an instrument of class rule will harden into lived experience, the more the politics of the left will develop and mature — and with all these, the better the prospects of a future break from the Democrats and the formation of a left-wing party.

I do think there should be more discussion now, within DSA and beyond, about the whys and hows of forming a left-wing party independent of the Democrats and rooted in the working class and among the oppressed. AOC’s comment about being in another party than Biden was one opportunity to advance that discussion, and it produced not just social media solidarity but substantive and thoughtful articles from the DSA left about what that future might look like. We need more discussion like that. But to my mind, it’s easier to contribute to that discussion effectively by accepting that the path toward that future currently runs through election campaigns using the Democratic Party ballot line.

Illusion Number Three: President Sanders Will Proceed to Dismantle Neoliberalism and Construct the Social Democratic Order on January 20, 2021: As hard as it is to imagine a Democratic National Convention where Bernie Sanders accepts the party’s presidential nomination, the world where he becomes president is almost inconceivable.

Not because, as noted previously, Sanders could never win the primaries or general election, even by a margin wide enough to prevent outright theft or theft-by-superdelegates/Electoral College. But even accepting a Sanders victory in November — and setting aside the grisly possibility that a victorious Sanders might not survive to inauguration for distinctly non-natural reasons — what would happen after January 2021 is incredibly hard to guess at.

For one thing, Sanders would have survived a filthy, reactionary, anti-red campaign waged by Trump and the Republican fanatics — and the mobilized hostility of a capitalist class that isn’t likely to be divided by hopes of taming Sanders or seeing him as a lesser evil to greater upheaval, a la Franklin Roosevelt. If Sanders survived all that, the shape of his presidency would be determined in large part by the particulars of how his opponents tried to stop him and how he prevailed.

Nothing in at least a century and a half of U.S. politics anticipates the scenario of someone dedicated to a program of at least very substantial reforms becoming president. (I’m guessing most readers of this article will know why I don’t think FDR fits the bill, but for anyone who wants the explanation in a nutshell: The Roosevelt who won the 1932 election was a moderate figure from a plutocratic background; he adopted the New Deal agenda in response to the depth of the crisis of the Great Depression, with the stated aim of protecting the capitalist class from even more radical and possibly revolutionary change. Sanders may hark back to FDR to articulate his program, but the context and the message today are different.)

The closest useful analogy is probably the example of Jeremy Corbyn when he was elected to lead the British Labour Party. Corbyn was and is to the left of Sanders on important issues, though Sanders’s shift leftward during the 2020 campaign has narrowed the gap. But more importantly for the purposes of this article, Sanders’s relationship to the party he would represent if he were to become its presidential nominee is similar to what Corbyn faced with Labour: relentless hostility and open sabotage from the extended leadership of own party. And the one important difference works against Sanders: Corbyn could count not only on popular support from Labour’s base but some measure of institutional backing from unions whose power within the party is an artifact of now-hollowed-out social democratic traditions that have no corollary in the Democratic Party. (The discussion of the Corbyn experience leading to last year’s election defeat obviously has direct bearing here, but I can’t comment — even if I felt capable — without making this already long article even longer.)

So the analogy isn’t perfect, but what can it tell us about a hypothetical Sanders presidency? Sanders would not lead a socialist revolution that ends the rule of the capitalist class. He has never suggested that his vision of socialism and “political revolution” goes beyond a radical restructuring and reform of the existing society by means of laying hands on the existing state machinery. (Again, this alone would be viewed as a cataclysmic, unprecedented threat by the American ruling class, and the ramifications of that make it hard to guess at anything more. But to continue with the hypothetical…)

The limitations of Sanders’s program would bring him into conflict with those who place their hopes and expectations in him whenever the reforms he proposes require action that goes beyond the power of the state — were he even able to wield that power relatively unhindered over the certain obstructionism of the Republicans and most of the Democratic Party. And there is the inevitable trap for reformists of administering a system that is built on protecting the power and privileges of the few, which would undermine Sanders’s program and his own resolve to carry it out, regardless of his best intentions. Even in the most optimal circumstances, Sanders would inevitably come in conflict with the interests and inclinations of the mass of his supporters.

But obviously socialists would have a lot more to say and do than this under a Sanders presidency. We would also defend Sanders against the right and the capitalist class, and we would participate in mass mobilizations to support his reformist agenda — not only because we back the reforms but because the struggle to achieve them will educate and embolden the working class, to paraphrase the classic formulation of Rosa Luxemburg.

Perhaps the most important slogan of the Sanders campaign is “Not me, us.” When asked the ritual question of how he would deal with an obstructionist Congress, Sanders infuriates the media by talking about mobilizing the mass of the population for a “political revolution.” Plenty of politicians talk about the power of the people, but this isn’t just campaign rhetoric for Sanders. Mass participation is surely part of his vision of socialism, whatever its limits.

But mobilizing in support of the Sanders agenda and against the right would be another source of debate and conflict among socialists and within the working-class movement. Sanders may want the “us,” but he’ll have a different idea of what “us” should do and how far “us” should go. And among the left that wants to go further than Sanders, there will be other debates, over everything from end goals to strategy and tactics — when to make a principled compromise, when to retreat and fight another day, when to stand and fight this day. Given the peculiar nature of this radicalization — that it has come without a substantial sustained rise in class or social struggles — socialists, the left, and the working class movement would all have a lot to learn very quickly in this hypothetical scenario.

The point of imagining all this is to show how much there would be for socialists to fight for, not only against, during a hypothetical Sanders presidency. We wouldn’t just analyze the shortcomings of a Sanders administration and agitate against it from the left. We would champion and participate in the struggles to defend and advance its reformist agenda, while finding the opportunities to take those struggles further and coalesce a revolutionary left prepared for the fights to come. It’s impossible to imagine a Sanders presidency coming about without being accompanied by the opportunity for mobilizations and struggles on a scale that hasn’t happened during my political life.

As long as I’m letting my imagination run wild, I’ll add a sober note: If the barbarisms of neoliberal capitalism, the ruthlessness of the capitalist class, and the inexperience and disorganization of the working-class and social movements after decades of defeat and decay are working against Sanders even winning the Democratic nomination, much less the presidency, they hang even more heavily against socialists with a vision of revolutionary change based on the self-emancipation of the working class. But of course, that would be no excuse to stand aside if Sanders were to win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency. There wouldn’t be a more opportune circumstance to wait around for, when we could fight for revolutionary socialism under purer conditions.

Just as there isn’t a more opportune left-wing radicalization to wait for today.

(I keep feeling compelled to point out the limits of speculating about a hypothetical scenario that would lead to titanic crises, conflicts, and struggles, which would scramble all the speculations. But if nothing else, I hope this thought experiment may convince anyone not dead set against being convinced that I’m not putting forward these ideas to abandon revolution or embrace socialism from above or any of the political insults flung around for the purpose of not having to think too hard about the world or the challenges facing socialists.)

DSA and the Socialist Radicalization

Yes, the left-wing radicalization extends beyond DSA and beyond elections. This observation was too often made in the ISO to minimize the importance of DSA and “electoralism,” but it’s certainly true on its face. The tide of teachers’ strikes leading an uptick in overall strike activity, to take one example, is a product of the same conditions that led to DSA’s growth and Bernie Sanders’s popularity, and even directly related to a degree, but with a separate life and dynamic.

For that matter, the Sanders phenomenon is obviously broader than DSA’s 60,000 members, and it’s important to understand how and why. I think one of DSA’s biggest challenges is the fact that, in its new incarnation, it has never had to work very hard to get people to participate and join. This manifests at times as a semi-ironic position of not asking anyone to join — and at others, more problematically, as an inexperience with seeing how people are radicalizing outside the organization and figuring out how to reach them and bring them closer to the socialist movement.

There’s plenty for socialists to do — especially socialists who can play a role in the labor movement or with a profile in struggles around immigrant rights, anti-racism, anti-sexism, etc. — without necessarily participating in DSA. But I believe DSA is the primary place to engage the core of self-identifying socialists within the larger left radicalization, and that’s important beyond just finding socialist meetings.

For the foreseeable future, DSA will tower over every other left organization and define what it means to be a socialist for most people — including those in the process of becoming one, who will therefore be influenced by its model. Just as importantly, DSA’s relationship (or non-relationship) to struggles of all kinds can be either an asset or a liability, which makes it important for socialist activists to consider how to build those relationships effectively.

I don’t mean by any of this to disparage other groups, networks, or initiatives that former ISO members are a part of. But my conclusion — based on my own circumstances but also the wider circumstances of the radicalization — is that DSA deserves the most attention right now.

The first challenge, though, is understanding an organization that is both familiar to former ISO members in some ways but foreign in others. One article about DSA by a member, Andy S, was very helpful in summarizing my own observations. This passage struck me as particularly important in light of some of the comments I’ve heard from former ISO members:

[I]t would be a mistake to view everything happening in DSA to be deliberate: most of the shortcomings that those outside DSA view as major problems are not intentional decisions to reject political work that needs to happen, but instead it’s the result of a lack of organization or capacity. Most DSA members have a sincere desire to have more political education, more discussion, to change the racial composition of the membership, engage with more struggles, etc. — there isn’t a refusal to engage in these things so much as a sense that members are working on things they can work on and don’t know how to do what they’re doing and more. I stress this point because in speaking with comrades not in DSA, they are quick to list all the things DSA is not doing as though there was a declaration stating they believed something was unimportant, but I think this is a misreading of intention. When you recognize that there is desire, it suggests that the organization wants to move in the same direction many on the revolutionary left think a socialist organization should go, but the question is how to accomplish that.

I would add, from my own experience, that it’s hard to get a clear reading of the questions in DSA, much less develop ways to contribute toward answering them, from the outside. It takes some practical contact — again, in my experience — to judge any analysis of DSA, whether positive or negative.

Consider the example of elections and electoralism, which is probably the biggest point of confusion for anyone trained by the ISO. The typical reaction, as comrades have described them to me over the past months, is that DSA’s organizational life is overwhelmed by elections, especially technical details and formal procedures, at the expense of “politics.”

I think this assessment, while not totally without a basis, is misconceived. First of all, there’s the thing that would be a point of confusion about the ISO for DSA members: the ISO’s general aversion to elections altogether. This was inevitable in an organization that opposed participation in any campaigns connected to the Democratic Party, but it bled over into a prejudice against even explicitly independent left-wing efforts in some cases. Especially when the leadership opposed prioritizing organizational resources for them, these campaigns were unfairly counterposed to “the real work” of movement building and socialist propaganda, and the “elections are the lowest form of struggle” catchphrase was wheeled out.

The last few years should have put that latter canard to rest, but I’d argue that it was always a one-sided formulation. Election campaigns that begin and end with the election itself and how to mobilize for it, that don’t contribute to ongoing movements and organization, that are tailored to uninspiring candidates barely of the left (not to mention the conventional Democratic Party liberals who constituted “election work” for much of the left over the last several decades) are indeed a low form of struggle. But a more genuinely left effort — the California Green Party campaigns in the mid-2000s and the Chicago City Council campaigns in 2015 come to mind from the lifetime of the ISO — can take advantage of the way elections can generalize a left program to bring attention to and mobilize enthusiasm for a variety of struggles, in ways that social movements can’t always achieve.

That’s certainly the lesson of the socialist campaigns of the last few years — ranging from a few that were explicitly independent of the Democrats, like Kshama Sawant in Seattle and Rossana Rodriguez in Chicago, to the more common model of Bernie Sanders and AOC using the Democratic ballot line. In that light, I think lingering hesitations about the enthusiasm for elections among other left forces say more about what was inadequate about the ISO’s analysis.

I think these recent years also show that elections and “movement work” (or any other component of socialist practice) don’t need to be seen as an either/or proposition. One of the great positives of the socialist campaigns, not present in every case but many, has been their success in building solidarity with labor and social movement struggles, many of which are returning the favor.

Left organization do have finite resources, which means making decisions about what to do and therefore what not to do — and for a group like DSA that has had spectacular success because of its socialist campaigns, it seems a natural reflex to see election opportunities ahead of others that might deserve a second look. As Andy S wrote, this isn’t necessarily a conscious choice against movement activity but the consequence of experience, coincidence, opportunity, and resources.

Moreover, looking at the experience in Chicago, I would argue that DSA’s efforts to elect six socialists to the City Council last year (despite real differences among them) contributed to other struggles in important, concrete ways, and vice versa. The obvious example to me is the Chicago Teachers Union-SEIU Local 73 strike last fall. Not only did DSA play an important direct role in strike solidarity — filling a gap left by the dissolution of the ISO in many respects — but the City Council campaigns months earlier helped prepare the ground for the CTU to raise social justice demands through the strike.

For example, when it raised the issue of housing and homelessness — over the bitter opposition of City Hall that this wasn’t an issue for unions to negotiate — the union could build on the work of DSA and its City Council members to focus attention on affordable housing and rent control. Likewise, after the strike’s success, housing justice groups and the City Council members are in a stronger position to press for ordinances and policies to curb developer profits and counter displacement caused by gentrification.

It seems to me that the left has an opportunity now to break down some of the divisions between elections/politics and struggle/movements — not only in how the left organizes but in challenging the ways capitalism and its political system tries to keep them separate.

Returning to the example of the CTU-SEIU strike, the unions were spectacularly successful against restrictive laws designed to keep them from bargaining over political questions — antiunion laws were effectively rendered moot. But as one socialist and teachers union activist, Kirstin R, pointed out after the strike, despite a historic contract with huge advances, Chicago schools are still drastically underfunded compared to suburban school systems — which poses the question of whether and how the CTU can support and advance redistributive politics at the local, state, and ultimately national level.

In a previous era when labor’s choices for participating in elections and “politics” were limited to the Democratic Party, there were few options available. But the successes of the socialist candidates show the possibility of a different playing field, and unions and the left ought to strategize more about that potential.

Of course, none of that will make a DSA meeting taken up with the details of canvassing or procedures for endorsing candidates any shorter. To DSA members, I would make the case that these meetings would benefit from an educational discussion, even at the expense of shortchanging a process to do with elections. But since this article is for former ISO members, I’ll say that I think the technical details of election work can be more political than we’re prone to give them credit for.

Take canvassing as an example. My experience of canvassing for Sanders and other DSA-endorsed candidates is limited, but it was striking from the very first time how this activity is an organizational building block for DSA in the same way that routines like Socialist Worker sales were for the ISO. They not only reach a potential audience but bring comrades together for collective discussion and education. The conversations I’ve had with the people I met on canvassings and tablings for Sanders were as valuable as an insight into broader consciousness as any on an SW sale. And of course, there’s the importance of canvassing in immediate electoral terms — to build grassroots enthusiasm for socialist and left-wing candidates at a time when they can make viable challenges. (Rossana Rodriguez ended up winning her election for City Council by a total of 13 votes, and I knocked on way more doors than that, so…just saying.)

My main suggestion about DSA would be to not try to map the organization from the outside but do a little exploring instead, and without preconceptions about what DSA should and shouldn’t do. The unevenness of the organization from chapter to chapter is no secret, so I know my experience is exceptional. Chicago is one of the most left-wing chapters, and I was fortunate to be introduced to the group through the labor branch, where I immediately felt at home and knew from the first meeting that I wanted to work with these comrades. But in general, I think a sustained effort to find out more about DSA is worth the while.

The ISO was shifting in its last year, especially at the last convention, to meet the challenge of engaging with the new socialist movement. I do wonder how it would have turned out. In light of the developments since the dissolution of the ISO, I hope that we would have abandoned our “principled” position of not supporting socialists running in the Democratic Party and encouraged comrades who wanted to be involved in those campaigns, along with pursuing a significant engagement with DSA.

But with the ISO dissolved, it feels to me like the center of gravity for revolutionary socialists has moved away from the focus on maintaining smaller organizational forms to preserve relative political homogeneity — which, as one comrade recently pointed out to me, was the outcome of the ISO’s final convention, before the dissolution — and toward experimenting with being in larger, more heterogenous formations, where we can engage with different ideas and practices, learn from them, and contribute our own.

Being in DSA means being in a multi-tendency organization where politics from different left traditions — ranging from left liberalism to social democracy to feminism, anarchism, revolutionary socialism, and more — get a sympathetic hearing. But in that diversity lies the opportunity for members to contend for the politics they believe in, even if they’re in the minority — though winning influence for politics that are unfamiliar or at odds with the immediate consensus should be understood to be a long-term project.

I don’t need to elaborate how the traditions to be found in DSA differ from those of the ISO. But I would caution against thinking these differences emerge all the time in the day-to-day life of an organization where most people have been members for less than three years and veterans have been around for five or eight. In my experience, there’s often a rough consensus and common sense — sometimes shaped by the national direction of the organization or by an article in publications like Jacobin — which many members accept, but not always evenly. I reckon the range of opinions you’re likely to hear at a DSA meeting in Chicago is similar to a well-attended public meeting of the ISO. DSA members assert anticapitalism and the socialist alternative as confidently and openly as any ISO member, and often in the same terms.

That, to me, means there’s common ground for building socialism together while continuing to discuss differences over the long term. I think we can have some confidence in the test of struggle and time.

We want to go through the coming period with a new generation of comrades and draw conclusions together. How we would have done that while maintaining the ISO’s organizational differentiation is a moot question. The goals of forming a left-wing party independent of the Democrats and of building distinct revolutionary organization to fight for international socialism depend on a new generation that has crystallized around enthusiasm for socialism as primarily defined by Bernie Sanders and the DSA. My conclusion is that I can best contribute by being part of both the election campaigns that are a primary arena for the radicalization and the organization that is giving a political home to the core of people at its heart.