How can we make a “political revolution”?

November 4, 2015

Bernie Sanders is calling for revolution on a regular basis during his campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. But what does he mean by a "political revolution" and what would it take to actually achieve one? Danny Katch, author of Socialism...Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation, provides some answers.

"READY TO start a political revolution?"

That's the cheerful call to arms greeting visitors to the presidential campaign home page of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Sanders campaign for the Democratic Party nomination started as a long shot last spring, but has snowballed into a credible, if still unlikely, threat to frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

Clinton had been widely viewed as the only serious candidate, not because she's so appealing to voters, but because of her deep connections and support among billionaires, banks and pharmaceutical companies.

Sanders, by contrast, has gained a significant following precisely because so many people are frustrated with a political class that is obviously in the bag for the 1 Percent--epitomized both by corporate Democrats like Clinton and by the various Republican lackeys for the Koch Brothers.

During the first presidential debate, Sanders expressed this mood in radical language not usually heard on network television:

I believe that the power of Corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of the drug companies, the power of the corporate media is so great that the only way we really transform America and do the things that the middle class and working class desperately need is through a political revolution, when millions of people begin to come together and stand up and say: Our government is going to work for all of us, not just a handful of billionaires.

Demonstrations during the Arab Spring revolt against Hosni Mubarak
Demonstrations during the Arab Spring revolt against Hosni Mubarak

Whatever Sanders means by revolution--and in fact, it is not so very revolutionary--his call for radical action is refreshing for many liberals and progressives who had their expectations systematically lowered ever since Barack Obama's historic election as the first Black president in 2008.

Obama famously promised hope and change, but has spent most of his time in office lecturing his supporters that they were naïve to think that change would come any faster than the slow drip of a leaky faucet.


OBAMA HAS often cast his presidency as a continuation of the historic fights against slavery and Jim Crow segregation, a process he describes as the country's slow evolution toward "a more perfect union." In fact, those struggles should teach us the opposite lesson: that history is not a gradual and inevitable march toward progress, but instead moves in dramatic thrusts forward and backward.

Revolutions, far from being impractical pipe dreams, have been one of the most important methods for moving history decisively forward.

It was a revolution that won independence from rule by the British king for the American colonies, and a (limited) democratic form of government. It was a revolution in Haiti that marked the beginning of the end of plantation slavery in the Americas. And it was revolutions across Africa and Asia in the mid-20th century that established that European colonialism would no longer govern the world.

Bernie Sanders' call for revolution resonates with many people because we are living in an era with levels of injustice and inequality similar to those that in the past have produced revolutions.

Sanders describes the problems well. "I think it is clear to anyone who has taken a look at this situation that the rules regarding our international financial system today are rigged in favor of the wealthy and the powerful at the expense of everyone else," he told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! "Today, 85 of the wealthiest people in this world own more wealth than the bottom half of the world's population, over 3 billion people."

In a discussion with students at William Penn University in Iowa, he identified a different kind of injustice: "You got kids who have police records in this country for possessing a small amount of marijuana. Does any major CEO of a Wall Street financial institution, whose greed and recklessness and illegal behavior destroyed this economy, resulted in the loss of millions of jobs, people lost their homes, lost their life savings. Does any one of those guys have a criminal record?"

Sanders is quieter about the injustices committed by the U.S. ruling class around the world. But these are just as vital to how the 1 Percent wields its power.

For example, the U.S. military has more bombs than every other military in the world combined. It rains those bombs down at will on other countries--supposedly to punish terrorists and other bad guys--but faces no consequences when it commits obvious war crimes like bombing a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan.

Or consider the double standard of national borders: U.S. traders can enrich themselves by investing in--or destroying--currencies and commodities all over the world, but people in those countries aren't allowed to come to the U.S. in search of a livelihood to replace the one destroyed by America's financial elite.

Our political system is supposed to be a democracy, which prevents domination by a tiny group of elites. But according to a widely discussed academic study last year by professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, while many political scientists describe the U.S. as a "majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts."

In other words, as Sanders likes to say, the system is rigged.


THE RIGGING takes place in part via legalized bribery otherwise known as corporate lobbying and campaign contributions that have only gotten larger since the U.S. Supreme Court's outrageous Citizens United decision lifted most restrictions on political donations in the name of protecting "free speech" of corporations and the rich.

Another way in which the deck of U.S. politics is stacked is the dominance of two political parties, both of which are backed by the 1 Percent. For years, a majority of Americans have favored having a strong third party, according to pinion polls, but the Republicans and Democrats have remained in exclusive control, forcing many progressive movements to feel as if they have no choice but to support the rotten compromises of the Democrats in order to prevent the alternative--rule by the greater-evil Republicans.

By choosing to run as a Democrat and promising that he will support Hillary Clinton if and when he loses the presidential primary, Sanders is actually contributing to the continuation of the two-party shell game. That's one of the ways in which is "political revolution" is actually pretty limited.

Not coincidentally, the content of Sanders' call for revolution falls far short of what would be necessary to really take on corporate power. When he was asked to clarify what he meant by "political revolution" during the Democratic candidates' debate in October, Sanders talked about increasing voter turnout and raising public consciousness. That certainly isn't enough to challenge a rigged system controlled by the 1 Percent.

Sanders isn't the first politician to talk about revolution to emphasize his outsider status and bold ideas--although these days the "R" word is more likely to be invoked by Tea Party Republicans looking to fire up their reactionary base.

But an actual political revolution isn't rhetoric, but a real event--relatively rare, but appearing repeatedly through history on every continent. It was defined memorably and beautifully by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky:

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business--kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists.

But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime.

Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.


THERE HAVE been many more revolutionary upheavals after the Russian Revolution of 1917, up to the current day and the wave of revolts across the Middle East and North Africa beginning in 2011 known as the Arab Spring.

Egypt saw the largest of these revolutions, in which millions of people took to the streets for weeks to fight off police and hired thugs and overthrow the 30-year reign of the U.S.-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak.

As the revolutionary wave spread to neighboring countries, longstanding divisions and repressive traditions were suddenly examined in a new light as ordinary people were thrust into a situation in which their ideas mattered. Here is how the New York Times described a center of the revolution in Yemen:

In the sprawling tent city outside Sana University, rival tribesmen have forsworn their vendettas to sit, eat and dance together. College students talk to Zaydi rebels from the north, and discover they are not, in fact, the devils portrayed in government newspapers. Women who have spent their lives indoors give impassioned speeches to amazed crowds. Four daily newspapers are now published in "Change Square," as it is called, and about 20 weeklies.

Scenes like this bring to mind a famous quote attributed to the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin: "There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen."

Other regions of the world have also seen dramatic political changes that don't fit the classical model of a revolution.

Waves of nationwide protests have led to the election of number of left-wing governments in South America, most famously in Venezuela, where millions of working people repeatedly took to the streets to defend the government of Hugo Chávez--and in the process, pushed his government to fight more broadly for their interests.

In Greece, years of general strikes and protests led to the dramatic growth of the radical left party SYRIZA, which won office earlier this year on a promise to end the horrible spending cuts imposed by the European Union.

These examples have more than one lesson. They show us that revolution and radical change are not just chapters in history books, but if anything are beginning to occur more regularly as our world becomes a more economically and ecologically more unstable place. But they also show the limitations of replacing unjust political regimes without changing the underlying capitalist order that put those regimes in power.

The rebellions of the Arab Spring have been dealt devastating setbacks by coups, civil wars and barbaric repression. In Greece, the European Union threatened to plunge the country into financial catastrophe, and the SYRIZA leadership chose to capitulate to another round of economic blackmail. In Venezuela, Chávez's successor Nicolás Maduro is struggling to maintain the social programs that reduced poverty after a global decline in oil prices hammered the country's main export.

One lesson we shouldn't take from these situations is that revolution isn't possible. What's needed is a thoroughgoing revolution, more so than Bernie Sanders envisions--one that doesn't just replace the political leaders or even whole regimes carrying out unjust policies, but that replaces the unjust economic system underlying them.


IF A political revolution is defined by the replacement of a political regime, a social revolution means replacing a societal order that is the foundation for that regime.

After all, as Sanders says, we are not just ruled by the candidates we elect to the White House and Congress, but by "the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of the drug companies, the power of the corporate media"--as well as the tremendous and unchecked power of the military and police.

Their power goes far beyond having the wealth to lobby government officials. They own the main resources of society and control how they are used. The only way to end that control is to put those resources in the hands of all of us, to be decided on democratically.

Just as revolutions in 17th and 18th century Europe brought about the end of the rule of kings and dukes and began a new era of a world run by factory owners and banks, a social revolution today could replace the reign of capitalism and begin a new era of self-rule for the majority.

That's the meaning of socialism, and it can only come about through the process of revolution: both because the 1 Percent won't simply give up control through a democratic vote, and because it's only by going through the profound change of ideas produced in places like Change Square in Yemen that the vast majority of people in society, the working class, can equip themselves to be able to run society for ourselves.

If society were based on the interests not of the 1 Percent, but all of us, we could easily find the resources for the best of Sanders' proposals like free college tuition and government-funded health care, and much more besides.

We could also take the trillions of dollars hoarded by corporations and wasted by the military to immediately end homelessness and hunger around the world, open borders for people to live where they choose, and save our children from ecological catastrophe by abolishing the fossil fuel industry and shifting to renewable energy sources.

Bernie Sanders' call for political revolution is welcome at a time when we urgently need radical change, but what does it mean to start working today for an actual revolution?

It means joining the causes that are motivating people to fight back, like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and forcing police officers to follow the laws they are supposed to enforce. It also means trying to organize the most farsighted activists who see the need for a longer-term fight for socialism.

In the U.S., part of that fight is building organizations that are independent of the Democratic Party, including its left faces like Sanders--just as one of the key steps forward in Venezuela, Greece and elsewhere has been the emergence of new parties and formations that broke the grip of the old corrupt rulers.

Developing strong movements independent of our rigged political system will be a key step toward making a real "political revolution" in the U.S.

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