A Marxist Vision for the Post-Sanders American Left

A segment of Diego Rivera’s “Man at the Crossroads” featuring depictions of Leon Trotsky, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx (Wikimedia Commons)

As a socialist writer who has been regularly producing political commentary for the last three years, I’ve made some observations about the state of the American Left and it’s potential future prospects. Though my political education began with reading authors like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn nearly two decades ago, I have more recently evolved in my political tendency and now consider myself a Marxist-Leninist. With the advent of Bernie Sanders and the prospects for social democracy in the United States, I was both inspired and frustrated during recent years.

My political views changed significantly over the course of the tumultuous four-year period that included both of Bernie’s presidential runs. But it wasn’t all at once, like a “Eureka!” moment. There was considerable overlap between my espousal of Marxism and my naïve hope in a Sanders-led push toward social democracy. I believe my political trajectory is far from unique and I believe others can change their minds, just as I did. After all, there is a vast population of disgruntled American progressives who recently watched their dreams of a “democratic socialist” presidential administration dashed before their eyes by a relentless, neoliberal, ruling-class institution; the Democratic Party.

Although I am somewhat new to Marxism-Leninism, I have recently read Lenin’s “State and Revolution,” Michael Parenti’s “Blackshirts and Reds,” Walter Rodney’s “The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World,” Ludo Marten’s “Another View of Stalin,” and Douglas Tottle’s somewhat obscure “Fraud, Famine and Fascism.” These texts and other sources of information (such as online publications and the Revolutionary Left Radio podcast) have allowed me to refine my views on socialism and consider what might be the best path toward this daunting task of reconstructing society. My recent trip to Cuba then provided tangible inspiration in this pursuit.

The goal, simply put, is for the working class to gain control of the political system and the economy so that industrial production is harnessed primarily for human need and public good. Once the “means of production” are decidedly seized, universal human flourishing can then be persistently pursued. Under capitalism, things like housing, healthcare, food, and education are largely commodified. Assuming adequate resources exist, socialists like myself believe these services should be human rights. Building class consciousness, political education, the capacity for community defense and mutual aid, and developing socialist political parties are some of the major projects that await us. But a primary barrier to these prerequisites is a ubiquitous Western phenomenon: anti-communism.

There are certain postures Bernie Sanders himself adopted that not only fall into the category of “left anti-communism” (such as the demonization of socialist projects of the Global South like Venezuela and Cuba), but also contributed to his demise (such as Russiagate). Whether or not Sanders personally believes in all of his public stances is another issue all together. But speculation could lead us to surmise that Sanders felt the best political calculation was to lean into the anti-communist rhetoric; after all, most of the American political landscape is still saturated with evidence-free, McCarthyist stereotypes of Marxism and Actually Existing Socialism (many of which originated with conservative — or in some cases fascist — sources; a fact all self-proclaimed “progressives” should care about).

In addition to recognizing the fabrications and McCarthyism of tactics like Russiagate, we need to continue exposing voter suppression, the corporate nature of the two-party system, and the problems with bourgeois democracy more broadly. We also need to re-examine imperialist lies beyond just the Cold War variety (many of which Sanders and other progressives utilize in their rhetoric). And we need to recognize the glaring omission of the entire topic of Western imperialism and neo-colonialism within the rhetoric of “democratic socialism”, especially in terms of the foreign resource extraction required of an empire like the U.S. and the related culpability of a hypothetically successful progressive presidential administration.

A larger theme in this discourse is the progressive push for Medicare for All, tuition-free college, housing reform, and other such policies. These and similar initiatives are consistently implemented by socialist countries, as they are in the material interests of the working class. Of course, this is yet another element of Western anti-communism; the whitewashing and omitting of the actual, tangible accomplishments of socialism (which Parenti and others have elucidated). It is important to explore this topic in general, but also to point out the inherently white supremacist, colonialist nature of such omissions, as they discount and marginalize the vast accomplishments of the anti-colonial and socialist movements of the Global South. This phenomenon can be witnessed pretty much any time American “progressives” share information about how all other “industrialized” nations have some form of universal healthcare, yet they consistently fail to mention Vietnam, the DPRK, Cuba, Venezuela, etc.

Speaking of Venezuela, there should also be a discussion of this oil-rich, Latin American nation as a modern example of Actually Existing Democratic Socialism, including the inherent challenges in such a path. These include far-right political parties and their violent sabotage in coordination with the still-existing bourgeoisie, specifically large companies hoarding food, right-wing protesters burning food, etc. — phenomena practically unheard of in countries that have taken a more Marxist-Leninist path. A major lesson from this particular discussion, once again, is that these progressive social programs have already been successfully enacted by revolutionary socialist governments around the world — not just by Western bourgeois welfare states. We therefore have numerous historical models regarding how to accomplish this outside of the false notion of socialism that has found its way into American political consciousness (which is essentially just social democracy accompanied by vaguely socialist rhetoric).

The progressive movement centered around the presidential candidacies of Bernie Sanders has certainly had a far-reaching and positive impact. If nothing else, this effort accurately described the desolate material conditions in the “land of the free”, proposed reasonable solutions, and paved the way for future socialists to become involved in American politics. Possibly most importantly, Sanders has softened the blow of the “S” word, especially with Millennials. (Due to the vestiges of Cold War propaganda and McCarthyism, socialism has largely been portrayed as some sort of cartoonish “evil” in Western discourse.)

Bernie’s “Political Revolution” unfortunately failed, but if it had succeeded, the success might have only been temporary. When social democratic reforms (like the New Deal) are implemented, those gains can be — and usually are — rolled back significantly by the tenacious forces of capital, which are allowed to continue operating under capitalism and within bourgeois democracy. In short, not only are the reforms themselves compromises with the ruling class (and therefore watered-down half measures), but they are subject to the whims of the ruling class, which has not been overthrown. In addition to our own New Deal legislation being gradually decimated by neoliberalism, things could end up even worse, as Chileans tragically learned in 1973.

Despite the momentary setbacks experienced by the progressive Left, I find myself optimistic that, when properly introduced to the ideas of Marxism, it is often the case that “non-sectarian” progressives and leftists will respond positively and openly. It happened to me, it has happened to acquaintances and many social media users I have interacted with, and it can happen to others as well. Learning about anti-communist propaganda and the rich, global history of socialism can be a very rewarding and liberating process, and those who have a pre-existing distrust of major Western institutions are inherently more receptive to this type of information. The failures of the attempted “progressive insurgency” within the Democratic Party and the subsequent widespread disillusionment should also serve as catalysts for American progressives who are seeking new analyses and visions for a future socialist reality. We must learn from these domestic failures and look to the infinitely demonized, yet successful global socialist triumphs of history.

It is time for progressives and working-class Americans of all stripes to unite and chart a path toward true socialism and human liberation. As Marx said, “You have nothing to lose but your chains!”

This piece has also been published by The Hampton Institute.





I primarily write about politics and history. My work has also been published by The Hampton Institute.

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Matthew John

Matthew John

I primarily write about politics and history. My work has also been published by The Hampton Institute.