In the 1967 preface to History and Class Consciousness, Hungarian communist Georg Lukács reflected critically but not cruelly on the “messianic sectarianism” of his youth: “Our enthusiasm was a very makeshift substitute for knowledge and experience.” After the 1917 Russian revolution, as the organized communist movement grew in Hungary, politics became not just a matter of principle but of practical decision-making with material consequences. Lukács came to see that simply having the correct idea or the moral high ground was not enough to guarantee victory.
“If I wished to arrive at a decision that was correct in principle I could never be content just to consider the immediate state of affairs. I would have to seek out those often-concealed mediations that had produced the situation and above all I would have to strive to anticipate the factors that would probably result from them and influence future praxis,” he wrote. “I found myself adopting an intellectual attitude dictated, by life itself, that conflicted sharply with the idealism and utopianism of my revolutionary messianism.”
This is a classic Marxist rhetorical move: in order to understand any one thing, you have to understand the history of every other thing as well. The passage could be a recipe for neurotic paralysis—I should know!—if not for the lessons to be drawn from what Lukács refers to as “life itself.” For a revolutionary intellectual like Lukács, what does this term mean? Identifying the next weak link in the imperial chain that might be split open by a militant working class wielding the immortal science of Marxism, yes, no doubt. But I also like to imagine old Georg scrambling to find space for the next meeting of the People’s Commissariat for Education. “Comrade Eugen, can you please take notes this week? Comrade Bela, can you moderate the discussion?” That sort of thing.
This is the power of organization—of, more specifically, party building: to provide discipline, focus, and direction to the chaos and upheaval of movements. To the romantic who waxes poetic about the force and vibrancy of the people in the streets, organization might look like a moderating, even a conservatizing force. Movements and activity are exciting: history is in motion! This, we are told, is what democracy looks like: hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions of ordinary people flooding public spaces. In comparison, another two-hour meeting of the outreach subcommittee of the working group to draft a proposal for the adoption of a new priority campaign seems immeasurably dull.
The frustrating truth, however, is that the slow, deliberate, boring work of the meetings and the spreadsheets and the phone calls is necessary to build the structures that can carry movements forward, provide accountability, and allow for thoughtful deliberation and debate. This too is what democracy looks like.
The most necessary organizing is difficult, unpaid, and largely unheralded. Working people are busy and tired and stressed out; why should they spend their free time doing something that will leave them even more drained as often as it energizes and restores them? Why do that difficult historical or theoretical reading when there is a new terrible show on Netflix that won’t ask for anything more than a smooth, blank brain to project itself onto? Or, indeed, a YouTube personality whose endless stream you can tune into for parasocial political catharsis?
The slow, deliberate, boring work of the meetings and the spreadsheets and the phone calls is necessary to build the structures that can carry movements forward. This too is what democracy looks like.
In the aftermath of Bernie 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the George Floyd rebellion, it has become clearer than ever that one of the primary questions that the left in the United States today must answer is that of organization. Depending on the context in which this question is asked, it can be reduced pretty precisely: the question of organization becomes a question of forming a third party or seizing the Democratic ballot line; of centralization or decentralization; of reform or revolution. Such debates have been had time and again. Often, they are very interesting. Other times, not so much. Certainly, though, they’re important, no matter the guise in which they appear. Take late last year, when an unfolding and unresolved contradiction within the U.S. left expressed itself in the form of a hashtag: #ForceTheVote. Largely but not solely driven by the left-populist comedian Jimmy Dore, it revealed an ongoing disagreement about the role, purpose, and function of organization writ large.
Ten Days that Shook the World
In order to understand the implications of #ForceTheVote, it may be useful to begin with an overview of the conditions that precipitated the French Revolution—ha ha, just kidding! But it is necessary to establish an understanding of the meaning and significance of Bernie Sanders’s two presidential campaigns, what Matt Karp describes in Jacobin as Bernie’s “five-year war,” which not only “illuminated American social democracy’s unknown political resources” but also “revealed, in a dramatic fashion, the determination of their opponents.” In other words, Bernie’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns showed the potential strength of socialism in the United States while also laying bare the forces of reaction: liberal, conservative, and fascist. At no point in recent memory has this potential come closer to reality than in the ten days between the 2020 Nevada caucus and the primaries of Super Tuesday.
Even before Bernie became the frontrunner in the race to determine the Democratic nominee, factions within the party and its ruling-class backers were worried about his rising influence. “There’s a growing realization that Sanders could end up winning this thing, or certainly that he stays in so long that he damages the actual winner,” David Brock told the New York Times all the way back in April 2019, expressing his hope that the anti-Bernie messaging would start “sooner rather than later.” Everyone knew that the longer the party remained fractured, the more Bernie benefited—the trouble was that nobody could agree on who to get behind. “A year before we announced, we had had a meeting,” Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser on the 2020 campaign who can (and often does) reasonably claim significant credit for expanding Sanders’s support among Latino voters, told me. “We all knew that if we did this, that Bernie could easily win—as long as there were three or four people in the race.”
By January 2020, just before the Iowa caucuses, Politico reported that Democratic National Committee staffers (later joined by Mike Bloomberg) were testing convention superdelegates’ willingness to thwart Bernie, should a brokered convention prove necessary. With Sanders leading after Iowa and New Hampshire, panic continued to spread through the Democratic Party establishment. On February 26, the Times reported that the most likely way to stop Sanders’s momentum, “a critical mass of the senator’s rivals drop out so voters can coalesce around a single alternative,” seemed “like the least likely outcome.” A day later, the paper reported that dozens of party leaders were “willing to risk intraparty damage” to stop Bernie at the convention.
Getting to this point had been no guarantee. “Bernie had a heart attack,” Emily Isaac, who was a field organizer for Bernie 2016 and national relational organizer for Bernie 2020, recalled recently. And then while he was still recovering, he was endorsed at a huge rally by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “We were already down in the polls . . . It felt like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna do our best, but this is it.’ . . . And AOC brought us back to life—it felt like such a miracle at that point, that this was happening, that we were winning. And we kept winning in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada.” After Bernie crushed the Nevada caucuses, “we were all on top of the world,” Alex Kania, a deputy field director on the Bernie 2020 campaign in Nevada, told me. “It felt like we were a part of something so huge and so transformational.”
But a week later, things began to shift. Joe Biden won the South Carolina primary with the support of more than 60 percent of the state’s Black voters, providing a massive boost to his then-anemic campaign. In retrospect, the Sanders campaign in South Carolina appears to have been a lot weaker than it needed to be to win, but even the most dynamic, adaptive operation would have struggled to overcome the influence of Representative Jim Clyburn’s endorsement.[*] (Sanders did not bother to seek it: “I respect him, but there’s no way in God’s earth he was going to be endorsing me,” he said.) In backing Biden, Clyburn not only rallied Black voters in the state to the former vice president’s cause; he created an opening for the rest of the Democratic Party establishment to consolidate behind Biden. After South Carolina, the Times reported, President Barack Obama leaned on Pete Buttigieg to drop out—which both he and Senator Amy Klobuchar did, endorsing Biden almost immediately thereafter. As CNN put it on Super Tuesday: “After slumping through the early primaries, it’s hard to imagine a better outcome for Biden.” And indeed, Biden went on to dominate on Super Tuesday, rendering Bernie 2020 dead in the water.
“There was an opinion that we needed to put Biden out of his misery after Nevada—really run some negative shit and just kill him,” Chuck Rocha told me. “Bernie Sanders had that conversation . . . People will say they know this or they saw this, but I was in those meetings. That actually did happen, and Bernie does like Joe Biden. He doesn’t think he’s a bad guy: he disagrees with him on some policy shit and will openly talk about that, but he did not want to bury the hatchet in his forehead.” He continued: “Now, would it have made all the difference? An operative like me knows that you take advantage of what you have. And we had a money advantage, and we had a momentum advantage. And we let him ease back in.”
The campaign would limp along for a few more weeks, allowing Bernie to make one last stand at a debate in mid-March. But whatever lingering hope the campaign had was dashed by Biden’s victory in Michigan, where Bernie had shocked Hillary Clinton four years earlier. By the time of the March 15 debate, the Covid-19 pandemic had exploded across the world: the location of the debate was changed from Phoenix, Arizona, to Washington, D.C., and one of the original co-moderators, Jorge Ramos, had to tap out after being exposed to the virus. If reality had endorsed Bernie Sanders, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put it at the time, the Democratic Party had rejected reality.
“The Bernie campaign couldn’t have ended at a worse juncture in history,” Jess Newman told me. In 2016, Newman worked for the Communications Workers of America, one of the few major unions to endorse Bernie’s first presidential campaign, and she was a national relational organizer on the 2020 campaign. “My last weekend on the campaign, being out in public, was the Michigan primary. . . . Three days later, we were in full lockdown,” she continued. “It was this crushing realization: this is all there is . . . this is the vehicle of working-class power right now, and it’s about to shut down. And it was insufficient. It was completely insufficient.”
The campaign was officially suspended in early April. “When Bernie dropped out,” Emily Isaac remembered, “thousands of people wrote into the campaign help desk thanking Bernie, talking about how he’s changed their life, how the campaign has changed their life, and how they had hope.”
As it happened, over the course of the campaign the help desk had become a regular point of contact for supporters—not only those with questions about how to phonebank or where to canvas, but those simply looking to share their experiences. “The biggest impact that being a part of the Bernie campaign had for me was reading messages day in and day out . . . so many people whose lives were derailed by something completely out of their control—an accident, a health care incident, wanting to go to college, whatever it might be—and then becoming completely out of options and having their lives completely devastated by this thing, because there was no safety net from the government, or from their community to support them,” Daniela Lapidous, who ran the help desk, told me. When we spoke, she was working on the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union campaign at Amazon in Alabama.
This was Bernie 2020 in its purest form: working people sharing their stories with each other; recognizing their own struggles in those of others; uniting across identities; fighting for someone they didn’t know, as the slogan went. It was a machine for producing solidarity that organized people into a particular kind of relationship to each other, to the state, and to the ruling class (“the billionaires,” in Bernie parlance). And it was designed that way. “Every time we had a training, we grounded it in the political stakes. There was never a question about why people were there and why what they were doing was getting them closer to our goal,” Newman said. “We were able to get people to do really tedious shit like data entry, or sending text messages and making phone calls and stuff that can be a little bit uncomfortable, because people understood what was at stake,” she continued.
With Sanders leading after Iowa and New Hampshire, panic continued to spread through the Democratic Party establishment.
Sanders went to great lengths to situate his “democratic socialism” firmly in the tradition of FDR and MLK, not Marx and Mao, veiling his “political revolution” in hypotheticals (“If there is going to be class warfare. . .”) or populist rhetoric (“the establishment”). “Guaranteeing health care to all people through a Medicare for All program—is that radical?” Sanders would ask at his rallies. (“No!” the crowd would respond.) “Raising the minimum wage to fifteen bucks an hour—is that radical?” (“No!”) “Making all public colleges and universities tuition-free, canceling all student debt through a tax on Wall Street speculation—radical?” (“No!”) And so on.
Strictly speaking, he was right: these things are not in themselves radical. But in practice, the campaign encouraged something unusual, if not necessarily unique, in American society. “There are American values of rugged individualism, exceptionalism, dominance, patriarchy . . . The campaign, at its best, was trying to strike at those values,” Phillip Agnew, co-founder of the Dream Defenders and Black Men Build, and a senior adviser on the 2020 campaign, told me. “It was trying to put forward a collective notion of freedom, of liberation, of government. It was trying to put forward a love of other people.” And that really was radical.
The Messenger is the Medium
Still, the power of collective love and solidarity was not enough to overcome the consolidated strength of the Democratic Party establishment backing Vice President Joe Biden with the tacit endorsement of Barack Obama, or the multilayered structural barriers that prevent and discourage working people—Bernie’s claimed base—from voting in the first place. If nothing else, however, the 2016 and 2020 campaigns showed that there is a significant level of support for Bernie’s platform in the abstract. The problem for the left is not primarily to win people over to its policies, but to convince people that the policies are worth fighting for. “The model for progressive electoral success is plainly broken somewhere, and solutions probably lie in questions of political affect—in making wary voters believe progressivism is truly viable at the ballot box and within our sclerotic political institutions,” Osita Nwanevu wrote after Bernie 2020 was suspended.
Political affect is not just a matter of rhetoric. “Bernie lost because most people believe that the world is the way it is, and it can’t meaningfully change,” Justin Charles, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s National Political Committee (and, full disclosure, a friend), put it in September 2020. “Bernie and many who supported him talked about a movement, but I think it mostly didn’t exist despite his best efforts to reverse engineer it.” More to the point, the movement organizations that create the conditions for that belief to flourish don’t exist—at least not in meaningful enough quantity and distribution to tip the balance.
“Bernie had the vast majority of local union endorsements. He had the community groups, progressive organizations. But, zooming out, we’re just at a super low point of social organization: there wasn’t much for him to work with,” Jonah Furman, a labor organizer on the 2020 campaign, told me. “If you’re going to run a social movement campaign, it implies the existence of organized social movements,” he said. “Those organized social movements don’t exist in the way they would need to for them to propel a grassroots candidate to victory.”
The problem for the left is not primarily to win people over to its policies, but to convince people the policies are worth fighting for.
In other words, the social movements that do exist are not yet organized in such a way that translates their cultural force into class-based political power. But taken together, the Sanders campaign and the uprising against the police that followed in its wake showed that the social basis for such movements might lie in an alliance of low-wage and high-debt workers increasingly (but not exclusively) concentrated in socially reproductive industries like health care, education, and the public sector. “A socialist program that confronts white supremacy as its immediate object—rather than trying to find a majority by navigating around the edifice of white supremacy—is the principle of unity for this bloc,” historian Gabriel Winant argued last year. “The relative social disconnection between the different parts of this hypothetical bloc, itself emerging from the disorganization of the American working class, is the reason it appeared in two parts [the campaign and the uprising] rather than one.”
Building that alliance is the task that lies before the socialist left now. But how to go about doing so remains a matter of much debate. “The biggest problem right now is the basic idea of class formation: we don’t have a well-formed working class that thinks of itself as a class, that has institutions,” Furman said. Part of the value of the Bernie project was “re-articulating what it means to be part of the working class, or part of a self-conscious, pro-working-class movement.”
For Furman and others in the Democratic Socialists of America, continuing this process of class formation and articulation through electoral struggle is the way forward. “Bernie put up the flag, and people flocked to it,” he told me. “Part of it is conjunctural. There was a moment in history: Occupy Wall Street had happened; the financial collapse had happened; Black Lives Matter had happened.” Furman went on: “But I still walk around with my Bernie shirt on and people are like, ‘Hell yeah man—Bernie!’ Even if I wear a DSA shirt, you’re not going to get that. Maybe from someone who’s a member. But you’re talking about tens of millions of people . . . who were like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m a Bernie guy.”
“The main question for me is: how do we keep that class formation process going? I think it means we have to contest again in 2024,” he said. “The fact is that a dude running for president is the best thing to happen to the progressive movement in my lifetime.” Influential thinkers within DSA concur: “All socialists, regardless of their ideological background, agree on the pressing need for class reformation in the US. The question is how best to go about facilitating that process,” Chris Maisano wrote in one of the organization’s publications. “Recent experience leads to the conclusion that wide-scale class formation will for the foreseeable future run largely, though not exclusively, through electoral politics.”
It certainly seems true that the emergence of talented national politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar or Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman has only expanded the capacity of the left to assert itself against the corporate Democratic mainstream. It is hard to believe that something like filibuster reform would be on the table otherwise. But to imagine that any of these individuals might in and of themselves reach beyond the marker that Bernie Sanders put down is a fantasy. The problem is not principally the quality of the message or the persuasiveness of the messenger; people do not need to be convinced that a better world is out there, but that it can actually be brought into being—and that they can be the ones to do it.
Filter Bubble Bath
In an interview with The New Yorker last June, Bernie Sanders reflected on his campaign at length, focusing on the reaction that his politics provoked (and continue to provoke) from the “establishment” in general and the corporate media in particular. It is worth quoting at length:
Did the role of MSNBC or the media in general surprise me? No, it didn’t. That is the establishment that we have taken on, and that is why we have worked so hard to try to build an alternative media. I’m proud of the fact that we have a lot more viewers and followers on social media and live streams than many other Democrats do. But we worked hard at that, and we do that because I believe strongly that we need an alternative vehicle, an alternative media, to talk about the ideas that impact working society, because it’s very naïve to believe that the corporate media will do that.
It’s not just that corporate media will oppose a socialist agenda; seeking positive coverage can have a deforming effect on a campaign. Chasing the high of the meteoric success and national attention is often to the detriment of the long, slow process of building power, as the rush of AOC’s primary victory was followed by the crash of Cynthia Nixon’s challenge to New York governor Andrew Cuomo.
Still, as with other parts of the Bernie campaign apparatus, the alternative media ecosystem that leadership either built directly or cultivated in both 2016 (podcasts) and 2020 (video streaming) can contribute to the process of class formation, movement building, and the articulation of a liberatory politics. As BuzzFeed News reported midway through the election cycle, “The stories [Bernie] collects and broadcasts across the internet aren’t just voter testimonials produced to validate the campaign or its policies—they’re aimed, in Bernie’s mind, at people validating one another.”
In the course of helping to kickstart the rebirth of history, the alternative media that surrounded the Sanders campaigns also helped coalesce an audience—and a consumer base—for left-ish ideas, organized centrally around the notion that the Democratic Party and the mainstream, liberal media behemoths (e.g. MSNBC, the New York Times) and even traditional progressive outlets (e.g. The Nation) were in some sense not just insufficient but actively adversarial to the Sanders project. Ironically, most of this new left media, with honorable exceptions, revolves around individual personalities with little to no connection to grassroots organizing or movement building. They are charismatic parasites.
In the absence of a campaign, movement, or organization, even alternative media is subject to the logic and incentives of the market in which it operates and the platforms on which it exists. Now, that alternative media is mutating, giving birth to degraded, populist pseudo-movements like #ForceTheVote, which sought to agitate the Bernie-supporting masses around a deeply obscure, procedural tactic its advocates claimed would expose the Democratic Party’s hypocrisy on Medicare for All—as if this hypocrisy is not already obvious to anyone who supported Sanders, or readily waved away by anyone who didn’t. Articulated by Jimmy Dore and popularized by former Bernie 2020 press secretary Briahna Joy Gray, #FTV called for a mass mobilization of Medicare for All supporters to pressure progressives in the House of Representatives to withhold their votes for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker in exchange for a floor vote on M4A. “Maybe [we] even get a general strike,” podcaster Kyle Kulinski said at a #FTV town hall in December 2020.
“The point is to create a moment, to highlight the immorality of opposing health care, of opposing Medicare for All during this pandemic,” another podcaster, Katie Halper, explained. “It may not pass—it probably won’t pass. But we—this is a line in the sand. And then what happens is, you shift the Overton window, or, to use a less wonky term, you just shift norms, you make something politically toxic. It’s not going to work the first time, [but] you keep doing it again and again. Then you get all the Democrats—hopefully, who knows—to support it. Then the Democrats can do something which they can’t do now, which is shame the Republicans and expose them as the ghouls that they are. They can’t do that now, because they’re into the private insurance, ‘Medicare for all who want it.’ And they don’t have the moral clarity with which to challenge the Republicans.”
In reality, the #FTV campaign primarily consisted of mean tweets and angry livestreams, often targeting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “She is standing between you and health care,” Dore told his audience (he has approximately 863,000 YouTube subscribers), calling her a “liar,” a “coward,” and a “gaslighter.” It almost goes without saying, but this is a very different theory of change than that of the socialist left, which may be riven over any number of tactical and strategic issues, but surely agrees that the Democratic Party leadership isn’t opposed to Medicare for All because of a lack of “moral clarity.” And yet, this is language that resonates with people. As Dore testily pointed out in one of his livestreams, responding to criticism from DSA activists: “The last video I did on the DSA got more views than they have members.”
A dirty truth of the Sanders campaigns, of course, is that “Bernie bros” were real, even if the meaning and significance ascribed to them by the mainstream media was not.
Both Dore and Gray, who now hosts a podcast with Virgil Texas, a former host of Chapo Trap House (alternative media darlings of the 2016 cycle), have pushed the narrative that DSA has been transformed into a top-heavy bureaucratic lobbying group more interested in currying access and favor with politicians than responding to the needs of its membership. (Ironically, this is what many DSA labor organizers say about unions in the United States today.) “My impression, so far, from what I’ve been told, is that there is actually a lot of grassroots activity among membership, but that there’s a gulf between what membership is interested in, and what leadership is willing to fight for,” Gray said toward the end of the December #FTV town hall, before launching into an even more sweeping criticism of the idea of organization writ large.
“Interlocutors,” she said vaguely, “like to say ‘organizing, organizing, it’s grassroots,’ as a way to shift people away from action.” She went on: “And in this moment, this is one of the first times in my life that I felt like I had to take the reins because the groups that I usually rely on to kind of champion a cause weren’t doing it. . . . It makes me feel a lot more confident about the kinds of things we could achieve if we don’t overly rely on institutions of any sort to advance our own interests.”
In an email, Gray clarified her position: “I never expressed skepticism of the importance of organizing or creating institutions that can make demands for universal healthcare,” she wrote to me. “What I have said is that some people bring up organizing as a way to obscure the fact that power can be wielded in the here and now by people who we’ve organized hard to elect to federal office. And I have a critique of organized groups and institutions who choose not to direct their constituents in ways that could put real pressure on those with power.”
Meanwhile, Dore has joined the advisory board of the Movement for a People’s Party, a nonprofit founded by a former Bernie 2016 staffer, Nick Brana, originally known as Draft Bernie for a People’s Party. Citing the breakdown of party systems around the world in a May 2020 interview, Brana explained that the MPP strives to be not just a third party but a major one. “We’re aiming to replace the Democratic Party in particular but also the Republican Party,” he told Kim Iversen, another left-ish YouTube personality.
“If a major new party comes about and it exposes [Trump] along with the Democrats,” Brana said, “it can bring a majority of Americans together into it. That’s our plan: it’s to become the largest party in the next four years; run in the midterms; and run for the presidency.” A few months later, Dore spoke at the MPP’s national convention. “The establishment wants voters to go back to sleep—to trade one nightmare for another nightmare. At a moment when the status quo has so clearly failed us, we have candidates that promise ‘nothing will fundamentally change.’ We need alternatives: we need alternative energy, we need alternative media, and we need alternative politics,” he said. “A People’s Party is the only solution.” In February, MPP announced that it was collecting signatures to get on the ballot in California, where Dore lives.
I Ubered a Platform
To the extent that those who correctly assess that neither Democrats nor Republicans can or will represent the interests of workers and the poor fixate on the ballot line, on the contesting of elections, and on the occupants of one office or another, they miss what it is that makes it so difficult for socialist politics to be realized in the United States today. Third parties with a national presence do exist, after all, but the most successful of these, the Green Party, is capable of little more than keeping itself on the ballot—and even that can be touch and go. “My experience with elections is that they’ve been very disempowering,” Mark Dudzic, national organizer of the short-lived Labor Party, recalled in a 2013 interview. “Without a permanent, structural presence that goes beyond elections, they leave very little in their wake.”
So much of the work that an organization like DSA does is oriented toward keeping working people engaged in class struggle, whether or not they are members of the organization.
A permanent, structural presence—in other words, a party. But why would anyone join or vote for your party if it can’t win anything? “Unions, and working people in general, have real, concrete interests and concerns which must be defended in the electoral arena even as we work to transcend the boundaries set by the two parties of the bosses,” Dudzic and Katherine Isaac, the Labor Party’s former secretary-treasurer, wrote in 2012. “The prospect of breaking completely with the Democratic Party without an established alternative was too risky for even the most militant unions and remains the biggest challenge to any effort to build an independent labor politics.” Such is the paradox of leftist organizing in the United States.
Critically, according to Dudzik, the Labor Party failed to build support in the industries (service and health care) and sectors of the working class (women, especially women of color, and immigrants) that were expanding at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. Changes in the structure of global capitalism accelerated the decomposition of the organized working class and its political forms in the United States and other wealthy democracies. “Mass parties were the parties of a mass society and were instrumental to the functioning of these societies as the vehicle for the social integration of the masses in the political arena,” the political theorist Paolo Gerbaudo writes in The Digital Party: Political Organization and Online Democracy. In the era of mass socialist, communist, and social democratic parties, members were organized geographically, according to where they lived, and by the level of their contribution to the life of the party: militants, cadre, and the central committee. “The party was conceived as a factory where politics had to be produced through collective ‘political work,’ inspired by Taylorist criteria of efficiency and rationalisation, as if politics were some sort of manufactured good.”
The era of neoliberal capitalism, ushered in by the oil shocks and stagflation crisis of the 1970s and marked by deindustrialization and financialization in the Global North, has seen the rapid rise of new forms of organization: the hashtag-driven mobilizations of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter in the United States; the indignados and aganaktismenoi in Spain and Greece, which coalesced into Podemos and Syriza, respectively; the Five Star Movement in Italy, led by a comedian and a web strategist. “In this new world that we live in, with this interaction between the mass media and the internet, mass fundraising, new communications tools . . . you can literally conjure a whole new party in, like, five minutes,” Zack Exley, a senior adviser on Bernie’s 2016 campaign, told me. “It’s all fiction, okay? It’s just this giant, crazy fiction that there are even organizations,” he said.
“It really comes down to the press: the press tells the story. The press makes this stuff real,” continued Exley, who co-founded Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, which were instrumental in electing AOC, and also New Consensus, which The Intercept’s Ryan Grim describes as the “policy muscle behind the Green New Deal.” “The closer that you get to being somebody that’s actually running one of these things, or being a politician that’s at the top of one of these things, you understand that it’s all smoke and mirrors.”
“The supporters believe that all these stories are true. The donors get taken for a ride . . . and they give money to whoever is getting the press,” he said. “I’m not saying that nothing is real—it’s that the smoke and the mirrors are real.”
Gerbaudo, the political theorist, calls the organizations that develop in this context “digital” or “platform parties,” which he argues resemble the giants of Silicon Valley just as the mass parties of a hundred years earlier resembled the factories of their day. “Platform parties have heavily tapped into the free labour and the financial contribution of these supporters, resembling the way digital companies extract value from the data of their users,” he writes. But “only for a very few individuals does the digitisation of political activities unlock the possibility of a truly qualitative intervention in the life of the political party.”
In other words, platform parties hinge upon a false sense of participation, community, and empowerment. In the United States, the influence of this logic can be seen in the shallow politicization of fandoms and the fandomification of politics. A dirty truth of the Sanders campaigns, of course, is that “Bernie bros” were real, even if the meaning and significance ascribed to them by the mainstream media was not. Few who supported him would have admitted it at the time—I certainly didn’t—but they existed. “A lot of people on the left find it risible that the shitposting irony left on Twitter hurt Bernie—that shit hurt us,” one campaign staffer who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity said. “Sharp elbows are really important, but they don’t do you a damn bit of good if they’re not attached to soft hands. . . . To have the anger and nothing else, it just puts people off.”
This phenomenon is not by any means limited to Bernie supporters: just post a tweet criticizing Kamala Harris, make a bad joke about Taylor Swift, accuse Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment, or be an outspoken woman online if you don’t believe me. Our crisis of political representation has given birth to mutant forms of community and solidarity: fanfiction and conspiracy theories about celebrities and celebrity politicians pour into the void. Lacking control over their lives and their futures, people inexorably devolve into fear, paranoia, and anger; social movements turn away from the horizon of freedom from exploitation and domination and toward ritualistic self-cannibalization. Is it any wonder that so many voters in 2020 could not bring themselves to believe that another world was possible?
It’s Not a Book Club
Fortunately for everyone, this is not the only legacy of the past five years. As it prepares for its biennial national convention, the DSA is approaching a hundred thousand members, making it by any measure the largest socialist formation in the United States since WWII, and thus the site of innumerable internal squabbles—and even some principled political debates—as members learn together what it means to be a socialist in the twenty-first century. Almost everyone I spoke to for this piece is a DSA member.
It is an accident of history that the DSA should have been the organization that saw such explosive growth in the immediate wake of the 2016 presidential campaign: in short, Bernie called himself a “democratic socialist,” which made for beneficial Google searches during the primary. After Donald Trump was elected, thousands of desperate, newly radicalized twentysomethings joined practically overnight. And now here we are: the anti-communist old guard, responsible for forming the organization in the first place, has been reduced to caucusing alongside a variety of other political tendencies and writing letters in The Nation about the importance of endorsing Joe Biden. (The DSA did not endorse Joe Biden.)
At the last national convention, held in 2019 in Atlanta with more than a thousand elected delegates, a resolution was approved committing DSA to a strategy of “class struggle elections.” In the short term, this means “building political organization independent of the Democratic Party and their capitalist donors” while still exploiting the porousness of Democratic Party primaries and the ballot line, and the creation of “a ‘candidate pipeline’ program for qualified DSA members and potential class-struggle candidates.” In the long term, however, the goal is to form “an independent working-class party.” An amendment to strike this last clause from the resolution was voted down. In other words: DSA’s present electoral strategy is, at least theoretically, in service of the creation of a new, independent, party of the working class.
The DSA is doing plenty of things that its members would want a party to do, but it is not running candidates on its own ballot line. One especially popular analysis describes DSA as a “party-surrogate,” an organization that engages on the terrain of the Democratic Party to build an independent membership with its own constituency and base, thus allowing for tactical flexibility and dynamism. As a party-surrogate, the argument goes, the DSA can help build movements without falling into the trap of movementism, and contest elections without being sucked into the mire of electoralism.
Whether the DSA contains the germ of “an independent working-class party” or can only contribute to some other, external effort is a matter of much debate. Certainly, it is an imperfect organization whose membership reflects a too-narrow fraction of the U.S. working class as it is currently composed. And yet, its power is growing. In the Bay Area, DSA organizers have been key in organizing workers at the Anchor Brewing Company, Tartine bakery, and Dandelion Chocolate company. In New York, state senator and DSA member Julia Salazar was instrumental in the passage of a sweeping set of rent law reforms in 2019, and last November, five more NYC-DSA–endorsed members were elected to the state legislature. In Portland, Maine, a coalition led by Southern Maine DSA won a slew of ballot measures, including a $15/hour minimum wage and a ban on local police using facial recognition software. On the other side of the country, the DSA chapter in Portland, Oregon helped pass a ballot measure paying for universal preschool by raising taxes on the rich. The chapter in Boulder, Colorado, wrote and passed a ballot measure ensuring legal representation for anyone getting evicted.
Crucially, in all of these cases, DSA organizers were working in collaboration and coalition with other progressive groups: union locals, tenants’ rights organizations, maybe even nonprofits. In some cases, DSA might be able to claim more credit than others, but few organizations have been involved in such an array of struggles—to say nothing of the mutual aid work, like the Houston activists going into homes devastated by hurricanes to prepare them for renovation, or the child care collectives that allowed working parents to attend meetings without having to hire a baby-sitter.
So much of the work that an organization like DSA does is oriented toward keeping working people engaged in class struggle, whether or not they are members of the organization. In New York City, the Bronx-Upper Manhattan branch ran a strike support operation almost around-the-clock that helped striking Teamsters win a historic contract at Hunts Point in the Bronx. AOC skipped the presidential inauguration to offer coffee and hot chocolate at the picket line. “The most important thing that we can do in order to win is to be people and spaces that people want to be around,” she recently told Democratic Left, an internal DSA publication. “I think people sometimes are dismissive of this, in thinking that it’s less serious than study. But who’s gonna join your book club if it sucks? Who’s gonna join your reading group if they feel judged? So the important thing we need to do is to really create something . . . excuse my language . . . but that’s fucking fun.”
The One and the Many
In 1904, a debate over questions of organizational form was unfolding between Lenin and Trotsky within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, prompting an intervention from Rosa Luxemburg. The party’s responsibility, Luxemburg argued, was not only to represent class interests of urban, industrial workers but “all who are oppressed by bourgeois domination.” The strongest party was one that served as a “haven of all discontented elements in our society and thus of the entire people, as contrasted to the tiny minority of capitalist masters,” she wrote.
Echoes of this idea can be found across the history of the left. In Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, Sarah Gordon, a former Communist militant from the Bronx, describes how party membership inscribed her life with meaning: “It was rich, warm, energetic, an exciting thickness in which our lives were wrapped. It nourished us when nothing else nourished us. It not only kept us alive, it made us powerful inside ourselves.” Partway through her eponymous memoir, Assata Shakur reflects on the people that she met in the course of her organizing in the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. “I was caught up in the music of struggle, and i wanted to dance,” she writes. “I was never bored and never lonely, and the brothers and sisters who became my friends were so beautiful to me.”
A haven where the music of struggle plays and all the discontented and oppressed are wrapped in the rich, warm, energetic embrace of their friends and comrades: this is what a political party can be, not just a ballot line or a program. It is a school and a weapon and a refuge. For those of us who imagine and demand a better world, organization is the thing that initiates struggles that bring others into the experience of solidarity—what Jodi Dean describes in Crowds and Party as “an affective infrastructure that enlarges the world.”
It is exhausting to be an individual all the time. As a fellow DSA member put it to me years ago, after a long day knocking doors for a city council candidate in Bay Ridge, “I just want to be a party member, bro.” Bourgeois myths of freedom, entrepreneurship, and genius seem to lead inevitably to loneliness and despair. “There’s a lot of things that are desirable about being a cog in a machine that I actually respect,” the political philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò told me recently. “You’re doing a task that isn’t about you. That is a good thing, right? That is a thing to desire.”
This too is a legacy of the past five years, not just the sting of Bernie Sanders’s loss, or the perverse digital incentives that have helped to fracture some of his would-be coalition. If we are still vanishingly far from the level of social organization required for a mass socialist movement to succeed in the United States, there are nonetheless millions more previously atomized people who have been changed by experiences of solidarity, whether as volunteers on a presidential campaign, protesters in the street, or neighbors undertaking mutual aid during a period of economic depression and plague.
No one can be merely talked into believing that a world without domination, exploitation, and oppression is possible. It is not a matter of rhetoric or propaganda, of reading the right books or listening to the right podcasts or watching the right streams, but of the transformational experience of collective struggle. Being absorbed into a party, a union, or any kind of organized, disciplined collective does not obliterate the individual but produces a different kind of individual: one who is not only valuable for the bits of data she creates as a user, viewer, or poster but someone who can participate in the shaping of her own future—not alone, but together.
[*] Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Representative Jim Clyburn as “Senator Jim Clyburn.”