From the Streets to the State and Back Again: Learning From the Sanders Moment

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From the Streets to the State and Back Again: Learning From the Sanders Moment

Stephen Maher and Rafael Khachaturian

The essays gathered in this collection were written in the midst of an escalating and multifaceted crisis situation in the United States. They address the search for a socialist politics in a highly uncertain period during which the legitimacy -- if not the structural persistence -- of neoliberalism came under increasing strain.

During that time, Bernie Sanders’ campaigns were seen as an apparent breakthrough for the left, allowing the widespread delegitimation of neoliberal ideology to be expressed within the parameters of the party system. Their failure compels socialists to return to difficult organizational and strategic questions -- and the answers are as uncertain as ever. As contemporary analyses of this period, these essays... both shed light on the forces that led to the present conjuncture, and illustrate the political and organizational challenges that are relevant in the post-Sanders moment.

The promise of Sanders spoke to a generation that came of age after the "anti-globalization movement" of the 1990s had come and gone, appearing to transcend hollow slogans about "changing the world without taking power." Although Occupy Wall Street created important political and ideological space in the context of the economic fallout of the Recession, its suppression by the authorities as suddenly as it emerged onto the political scene a mere two months later left little if any organized infrastructure behind.

The limits of what had been accomplished through mass demonstrations alone was apparent to those who came out of the recession facing a precarious future, with lowered standards of living, eroding social protections, growing state surveillance and repression, and a rapidly intensifying ecological crisis.

For this new generation of activists and organizers, Sanders’ upstart 2016 campaign appeared to be a viable route to claiming a part of state power. Following Sanders in unabashedly proclaiming themselves ‘democratic socialists’, these activists flocked to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), transforming it practically overnight from what was effectively a grassroots progressive caucus within the Democratic Party into a vehicle for a left politics still to be defined.

Some of Sanders’ more ambitious supporters saw his campaign as the first step in an eventual "dirty break" from the Democratic Party. According to this strategy, socialists would run as Democrats for national, state, and municipal offices. These campaigns would serve as vehicles for strengthening the bonds between democratic socialists in office, on the one hand, and community organizers and rank-and-file trade union activists, on the other. Ultimately, it was argued, this would create the base for an autonomous socialist party and a split from the Democratic Party. Given the stranglehold of the two corporate parties on electoral politics, this seemed to offer the best path to a viable mass socialist party.

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