How Socialist Is Bernie Sanders?

Thursday, May 2, 2019
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The candidacy of Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination raises the real prospect of an avowed socialist as President of the United States. Notably, Sanders reveals little about what socialism means to him, other than giving many things away free. He disarms critics by asserting that he is not a “socialist” but a “Democratic Socialist,” without defining what that means.

Sanders, however, is not the only self-declared “Democratic Socialist” around. The largest American socialist party, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), unlike Sanders, openly declares its intent to abolish capitalism as we know it. A staff writer for a DSA house publication could not be clearer: “In the long run, democratic socialists want to end capitalism…we want to end our society’s subservience to the market.”

Does Sanders agree? That is the question.

Socialism burst on the American political scene with Sanders’ strong bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Not a one-time fluke, Sanders currently ranks at the top of the crowded 2020 Democratic field. The 2018 elections of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Rashida Tlaib to the House added momentum to the socialist chic sweeping the country.  In the past few years, candidates identifying themselves as socialist have won more than 50 state and municipal offices, the latest being the election of five candidates to the Chicago city council.

Sanders has spent a long political career obfuscating his true political beliefs. The media rarely pushes back on his standard platitudes, such as “we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.” His two-minute video, promising to explain his brand of socialism, leaves the viewer clueless, probably deliberately. Sanders insists that he is not a “socialist” but a “Democratic Socialist,” as if the difference is self-explanatory. When pressed further about his Democratic Socialism, he resorts to filibustering about the Scandinavian-like paradise of free medicine and education, guaranteed jobs, livable wages, and other free things he intends to introduce when elected. He does not bother to note that the Nordic states rank among the most free-enterprise economies of the globe.

Understanding what Sanders means by Democratic Socialism has taken on a sense of urgency with his candidacy. He is bolstered by positive views of socialism among majorities of young people and Democrats. His primary opponents line up to sign on to a Green New Deal, increased marginal tax rates, Sanders’ own “Medicare-for-all,” and other “progressive” measures. Oddly, socialist candidate Sanders has proven to be a formidable fundraiser.

The Democratic Socialists of America is America’s largest socialist party. It has grown from 6,000 to 60,000 dues-paying members in the last eight years and counts two members of Congress – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Rashida Tlaib -- in its ranks. AOC has become a media favorite and her Green New Deal has become a mainstay of the progressive agenda.

Unlike Sanders, the Democratic Socialists are not reticent to explain in detail their core principles in party brochures and in-house periodicals, such as The Jacobin and The Socialist Call.  In writing for a sympathetic audience, they are candid in spelling out the principles of their brand of Democratic Socialism, which include:

First, Democratic Socialism wants more than an expansive welfare state.  In their writings, Democratic Socialists emphasize that their brand “is not just New Deal liberalism.” It must go beyond checking the worst of capitalism with progressive legislation.  Progressive gains, they argue, are inevitably transitory and will be reversed as long as the economy remains organized around capitalist profits.

Second, capitalism is a zero-sum game in which the rich get richer by making the poor and working class worse off. Capitalist profits are based on the exploitation of labor. The less the worker gets, the higher the capitalist’s profit. Capitalism is a “race to the bottom” as capitalists seek out the lowest wages and thereby lower living standards the world over. In addition, capital strike -- the withholding of investment or threats to take capital elsewhere -- gives the capitalists “power to determine whether or not we have jobs and thus the ability to provide for ourselves.”

Third, the poor, working class, and other underdogs can overturn the capitalist order only if they are organized. Grass-roots organizing begins with community organizers and then moves up the chain. As long as workers, the poor, minorities, women, LGBT communities, immigrants, and the unemployed remain divided, capitalists will continue to enjoy their power advantage. In their fight against economic exploitation, mass incarceration, police brutality, gender violence, LGBT intolerance, job and housing discrimination, and deportations, “normal people — when they’re not organized — have next to no power.”

Fourth and most important, capital must be publicly owned because there is no real democracy with private ownership of capital. Democratic Socialists grant that the poor and working class can vote for progressive causes, but capitalists can counter this by using their wealth to bury progressive legislation. “As long as a handful of elite capitalists get to call the shots, the playing field will be tilted in their favor.” The Democratic Socialist solution: Transfer capital to worker or municipal ownership. Corporations must be owned and controlled by workers or directed by state planners or regulators. Finance should be nationalized so that major investment decisions are made by public authorities. How Democratic Socialists will go about transferring private capital to “true democratic control” is unclear, because the “people have to decide.”

Sanders is fully on board with the DSA narratives of capitalist exploitation and the need to organize. Sanders declares that: “We work somebody to the point of no return, and we get rid of them and get somebody else in. It’s not a culture where people are respected, are nourished.” In Sanders’ stump speeches, the exploited worker is no longer Karl Marx’s miner or steel worker but the Amazon employee toiling away in a window-less warehouse contemplating suicide. With respect to organizing, Sanders calls for “a political revolution to transform our country economically, politically, socially and environmentally." Only by organizing the people against corporations and the rich can special interests be defeated and progressive reforms enacted into law.

There seems to be no distance between Sanders and DSA on progressive legislation, organizing, and exploitation. This leaves the core issue of nationalization.

According to CNN files, Sanders advocated in the 1970s the nationalization of most major industries. According to Sanders then: “The oil industry, and the entire energy industry, should be owned by the public and used for the public good — not for additional profits for billionaires.” When asked recently whether his position on nationalization has changed, Sanders pivoted to his “free stuff” filibuster. No answer.

What Sanders advocated a half-century back is much less important than his current legislative initiatives. Let’s face it: Sanders’ signature Medicare-for-all, as laid out in his Senate bill, nationalizes all medical care. Private health insurance and employer insurance disappear and private providers must reorganize as non-profits and/or governmental organizations. A massive government bureaucracy determines our medical care – a sort of super VA. If Sanders is prepared to nationalize one fifth of the economy, he should have no qualms about doing the same to his loathed private energy and finance sectors.

Marx declared that a socialist revolution would be required to part the capitalists from their capital. Democratic Socialists (DSA and Sanders) see a different path to what they consider true democracy: Organize the poor, the working class, and all other oppressed groups into what James Madison called an “overbearing majority.” Such a coalition would have enough power to transfer capital to the state by “democratic means.”

Is Bernie Sanders truly Democratic Socialist? Or is he, to ask the question posed by a Democratic insider, “pretending to be a socialist.” Let us hope that he will be challenged to reveal more of himself on the campaign trail as the media tires of his long list of freebies. American voters have the right to know.