Mass Politics, Not Movementism, Is the Future of the Left

Bernie Sanders is out of the race, but we can’t retreat to the subcultural politics that were hegemonic on the Left before his campaigns began. Mass politics is still our way forward.

Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses supporters during a campaign rally on March 8, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Brittany Greeson / Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the presidency has come to an end. Between the dramatic impact of the party establishment’s post–South Carolina unification around Joe Biden and the coronavirus pandemic’s effective suspension of democracy, Sanders was left with no path forward and suspended his campaign.

Naturally, the new socialist left in the United States is now starting to think about what is to be done after Bernie. In this moment of uncertainty and reconsideration, there is going to be a strong temptation to retreat to the politics that were hegemonic on the Left before Sanders’s first run: anti-electoral movementism and the embrace of left politics as a subculture.

We need to resist this temptation. Even with Sanders out of the race, his defeat has the potential to be one of the most productive defeats the Left has endured in decades, if we learn the right lessons from it.

From Anarchism to Mass Politics

Before 2016, the bulk of the American left had little time for electoral politics outside of protest candidates like Ralph Nader. Stymied by both the United States’ uniquely undemocratic electoral institutions and the Democratic Party’s long march to the right since the 1970s, leftists saw electoral politics as a depoliticizing field that sapped energy from non-electoral movements.

To be sure, this picture wasn’t entirely inaccurate. The movement against the war in Iraq really was demobilized in part by Democratic electoral efforts. And when Dennis Kucinich is the standard-bearer for the Left in the primaries, it’s not hard to conclude that there is little of value to be had there.

At the same time, however, this stance has had real costs for the Left. The embrace of social movements as an alternative to electoral politics allowed the Left to cultivate an embrace of marginality that it has yet to shed completely. This trend expressed itself most strongly in the anarchist moment of the late 1990s and early 2000s, as forms of lifestyle politics from co-ops to dumpster diving were consciously advanced as left strategy. Occupy also gave voice to this trend, as anyone who remembers hours-long meetings about drum circles can attest to.

These were forms of politics that were actively hostile to the involvement of people who didn’t share a very narrow cultural horizon. Social movements, like the antiwar movement or Black Lives Matter, broke out of this narrowness and attempted to mobilize people on a mass scale. But their mobilizations were sporadic and short-lived. Without institutions capable of sustaining and directing mass mobilization, the movements inevitably faded. As they contracted, anxieties over their failure often drove their remaining participants back into an embrace of marginality.

Sanders has shown that electoral politics can be a vehicle for going far beyond these limits. His campaign has not only mobilized hundreds of thousands of volunteers, but transformed them into organizers. This army has gone out and engaged in the mundane work of trying to convince people who don’t necessarily have any connection to the Left that their hopes and ideals are best realized through supporting a socialist. This is the very essence of mass politics, and the Sanders campaign allowed the Left to practice it in a way that hasn’t been seen for decades.

No Going Back

In spite of this advance, left skepticism about electoral politics will no doubt resurface if the primary continues on its present course. Sanders’s more reluctant supporters and left critics of his run, who have remained quiet while his campaign was active, will become more vocal.

They will argue that electoral politics is especially hostile to the socialist left. Seeking control of the capitalist state is always a myopic strategy, they will say, and doing so through the capitalist Democratic Party is an even bigger mistake.

It is, of course, true that electoral politics in the United States are institutionally biased against socialists, and that the Democratic Party is run by a corporate-backed establishment that will do everything in their considerable power to stop socialists from succeeding on their ballot line.

But it doesn’t follow from this that electoral politics are uniquely hostile to the Left. After all, if there is anywhere employers have more power than the Democratic Party, it is surely the workplace, and the Left isn’t about to write off struggle in that field.

The temptation to retreat into comfortable modes of politics will be strong. The Left’s first taste of mass politics in decades has fueled new ambitions, but the defeats that are an inevitable part of electoral politics also threaten to demoralize people into retrogression. The achievements of the Sanders campaign have been hard-won and need to be fought for to be preserved. In the face of defeat, the Left must remember the old slogan of the socialist movement — forward!