Bernard E. Harcourt | An Introduction to Political Revolution

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Bernie Sanders appropriates the term “political revolution.” That is significant in and of itself. The meaning of the term “revolution” has undergone change over time, and, in its modern usage, connotes “social” as opposed to merely “political” revolution: as Hannah Arendt and Reinhardt Koselleck showed us—and as we studied in Uprising 1/13—the modern conception of revolution is associated with a social transformation that goes beyond political change: it is about social change, about in Koselleck’s words “the social emancipation of all men, [about] transforming the social structure.”[1]

In this light, Sanders’ appropriation of the qualifying term “political” is informed, astute, and strategic. His intervention focuses us back on the political—almost as if Sanders is shedding his earlier socialist identity to assume the more contemporary democratic socialist identity. The shift from “revolution” to “political revolution” normalizes his political position, putting it more in line with democratic activism in both small and big D.

The reform agenda that Sanders sets out in his Guide to Political Revolution is nevertheless radical—and with the exception of nationalized industry, satisfies most of the social aspirations of the utopian socialist state:

  • Guaranteed health care for everyone through “a national Medicare for All single-payer system.” (81)
  • Dental care for everyone (96)
  • Free universal higher education (105)
  • Ending private prisons (165)
  • Ending the death penalty (166)
  • Demilitarizing police forces (170)
  • Federally funded body cameras on all law enforcement officers (170)
  • Legalizing marijuana (171)
  • Banning the box (172)
  • Keeping the DREAM Act, DACA, and a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people (189)
  • Reversing climate change and sticking with the December 2015 Paris Climate Conference (147)
  • Banning fracking (140)
  • Taxing carbon and methane pollution (139)
  • A tax on stock sales to stop high-frequency speculative trading (and fund $300 billion of tuition-free public colleges and universities) (68).
  • A federal minimum wage that is a living wage (2)
  • A progressive estate tax (42)
  • Paid vacations, paid sick leave, and paid maternity leave (17-19)
  • A major federal jobs program that puts millions of Americans to work at decent-paying jobs. (25)
  • Equal pay for women (13)

It’s possible that Sanders’ program is as, if not more audacious than that of socialist parties, surely for instance than the platform of former Socialist president François Hollande of France.

But at the same time, as Amna Akbar discusses next, it is far more conventional than so many of the activist agendas today–reflecting, more than anything, the chasm between materialist socialist programs and more radical abolitionist politics today.

From a critical perspective, one of the most fascinating dimensions of Sanders’ book is that he does not really deploy notions of ideology or false consciousness. Throughout the narrative, Sanders emphasizes that we basically all know what is going on. There are no illusions. There is no need to lift a veil. Everybody knows and understands the way that the political system favors and subsidizes large corporations. “Americans see that there are different rules for the rich and powerful than for everyone else.” (60, emphasis added)

Throughout the Guide, Sanders underscores that we all essentially know what is going on. In that sense, there is practically no need for critique. No need to lift the veil. All that we need to do is to mobilize in the face of these injustices.

Sanders is cognizant of the paradoxes of capitalism, and he exposes them at every turn: the system actually underwrites large corporations—Walmart, for instance, which does not pay its workers a living way, meaning that the taxpayers have to support them with food stamps and subsidized housing. (8-9) Sanders describes the fraud and misrepresentation of large banks. (57-58) He is relentless in showing the lie of advanced capitalism. We know these truths.

The only thing missing, then, is for the younger generation to mobilize and do what is necessary. Sanders dedicates his book to “the younger generation,” encouraging them to convert their “idealism and generosity of spirit into political activity,” and acknowledging that only they will be able to “create a lot better world than the one my generation left you.” (Dedication). His message is clear: it is only younger activists who will get us out of this mess.

In many respects, Sanders’ Guide is remarkable. It not only argues convincingly for equitable positions, in programmatic detail, it also directs the reader to websites and organizations that address the problems and solutions he raises. It is an applied intervention with a how-to approach. A real self-help manual. This is, no doubt, in large part because he has been in Congress since 1990. Sanders knows how to pitch a policy proposal and measure its effect: including, for instance, a transaction tax of just 0.5 percent on stock trades would raise $300 billion a year, enough to make colleges and universities tuition-free. (68-69)

If anything, Sanders’ Guide fits somewhere beyond critique—as a form of pure praxis. The imperative is not to enlighten or unveil. We all know what’s going on. The imperative instead is to encourage and incite the younger generation to mobilize. For they alone will be able to improve our world. Youth of the world unite!

On the last round, for the presidential in 2016, Sanders was successful in rallying the younger generation. The question now is whether the younger vote will turn out at the 2018 midterms. Many pollsters are somewhat concerned about that. In the back of my mind, I wonder if the injustices that Sanders catalogues meticulously in his work will motivate or overwhelm the next generation. We’ll know the answer to that in a few weeks.

To help us critically explore Sanders’ book and the Indivisible manual, we are delighted to welcome to Praxis 13/13 three brilliant critical theorists, Amna Akbar of Ohio State University, Brandon Terry of Harvard University, and Adam Tooze of Columbia University.

Welcome to Praxis 3/13!


[1]Koselleck 2004, 52; see also Arendt 1963, On Revolution; Harcourt, Critique & Praxis, 2018, p. 54.